The UMAction Steering Committee recently met in Washington, D.C. to discuss current developments, challenges, and opportunities within our United Methodist Church. These faithful United Methodist lay and clergy men and women from across our denomination love our church and are committed to its renewal in faithfulness and in a disciple-making focus. I am privileged to be accountable to them.
The headline-grabbing controversies today are the entirely predictable fruit of years of too many of our bishops and denominational officials aiding and abetting trust-breaking, “progressive” clergy in acting as if they are accountable to no one higher than themselves and as if the church exists to provide them with a condition-free platform for their personal agendas.
While renegade ministers may win praise from a few non-Christians for validating sexual sin (homosexual or heterosexual), this misleads and spiritually harms precious human beings to whom the church should have been ministering in a compassionate, uncompromising, redemptive, and authentically Christian way.
What our church needs now is not that short-sighted denialism that protects our own comfort by leaving addressing our serious challenges up to others. No constructive purpose is served by misleadingly pitching one-sided, stepping-stone liberalization proposals as “compromises.” Nor do we need sentimentalist idolization of sub-Christian notions of “unity” or white-washing cries of “peace, peace” in places in our church in which there is no peace.
The serious and constructive conversation United Methodists need to have about unity must be grounded in biblical and historic Christian teaching about the foundation, purpose, nature, and, yes, limits of church unity.
And none of us who love the United Methodist Church can afford to ignore directly facing some key facts:
- Our denomination, together with the clear, consistent witness of the global body of Christ across two millennia, affirms biblical standard that sexual relations are a gift from God only for within the covenant of faithful marriage between one man and one woman. A more permissive ethos simply cannot be reconciled with the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards (especially Methodist Article VI and Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament).
- While this official stance of the church could theoretically be changed through the proper channels at General Conference, the last couple of General Conferences have affirmed the present, biblical teaching in our Social Principles by a growing majority. At the 2012 General Conference, liberal activists ultimately made the unprecedented choice to give up even trying to convince delegates to remove our denomination’s separate, binding policies forbidding our clergy from conducting “ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions” or personally being sexually active outside of man-woman marriage.
- Some U.S. United Methodist clergy, constituting a small minority of the whole, have very publicly declared their unwillingness to keep their own word given at ordination to God and the church to uphold United Methodism’s doctrinal and moral standards. They insist on keeping all the benefits of being United Methodist clergy, but claim a unilateral right to pick and choose which of their responsibilities and voluntarily made promises they will honor. Some bishops and other denominational officials have in various ways encouraged, enabled, and directly joined such divisive covenant-breaking.
- In their words and actions, countless “progressive” United Methodists have made it perfectly clear that they emphatically do NOT see evangelical United Methodists like us as their brothers and sisters in Christ, in any meaningful way.
- By rejecting foundational Christian doctrines like the resurrection of Christ (as “Reconciling” movement hero, Bishop Joe Sprague, does), claiming independence from our denomination’s community covenant, and refusing basic Golden-Rule civility to any United Methodists outside of their faction, many progressive United Methodists strike at the heart of any principled, lasting foundation for church unity. Covenant-breaking clergy leave little room for trust when they declare that not even their own most solemn vows to God and the church can be trusted.
- Any possible path forward from here will be long, difficult, and accompanied by significant disappointment-driven losses by some United Methodists on one side or another. But the alternative to losing a few church-killing, accountability-rejecting ministers is not keeping everyone together but rather sacrificing countless sheep to protect a smaller number of unprincipled shepherds.
We must have the courage to realistically consider what we can do to faithfully move forward.
I invite all those interested in the unity of our church to join UMAction in:
- Explicitly recognizing that any truly Christian church unity will ultimately insist on some firm communal boundaries;
- Insisting on meaningful consequences for clergy and other UMC leaders who willfully and recklessly attack our unity by openly opposing our Doctrinal Standards and/or disregarding our biblical, covenantal standards related to sexual self-control; and
- Opposing current efforts of progressive United Methodists to use the name and resources of the whole church to support very partisan, debatable political agendas issues on which faithful Christians can and do disagree, as this fails to honor our unity and diversity and suggests that only people of certain political persuasions are welcome in our churches.
For their part, our bishops have the ability, if they choose, to offer some of the leadership our denomination so desperately needs for faithfulness, healing, and constructively moving forward in ministry. Today, many United Methodists across our theological divide are questioning the value of honoring and working through our denomination’s established, apportionment-funded system. At such a time as this, any of our bishops could do much to re-establish trust if they had the courage, acting individually and/or jointly with some other bishops, to:
- Take the sort of actions respectfully urged by the Methodist Crossroads statement (of which IRD President Mark Tooley and I were among the original signers);
- Use their “bully pulpit” to actually teach the value and beauty of biblical standards for sexual self-control, including but not limited to as they relate to homosexuality;
- Join the few of their colleagues who have actually upheld longstanding church law forbidding any of our congregations from formally identifying themselves as part of the sexually liberal Reconciling Ministries Network; and
- Publicly commit, together with the Commission on the General Conference whose members they (essentially) appointed, to NOT fail our church as spectacularly as they and their appointees did at the last, embarrassingly wasteful and dysfunctional, General Conference. This would include making clear their firm determination to not let any outside protest group illegally take over or change the agenda for General Conference meetings, to no longer extend to such protest groups any special privileges or platforms not also extended to evangelical renewal caucuses, and to ensure that high-priority reform proposals supported by orthodox United Methodists will have no less opportunity for fair consideration in plenary session than the top priorities of progressive United Methodists.
I realize that our bishops are a rather diverse group. But even if we see a lack of strong collective action, I would hope that some of our orthodox bishops will not wait indefinitely on their colleagues before offering some strong, encouraging public leadership that would be immeasurably helpful for our church.
For our part, UMAction will not wait on others. We are moving forward, in partnership with others, to:
- PRAY for our denominational leaders, and for revival to erupt throughout our beloved United Methodist Church;
- Promote a positive vision of what our church, with God’s help, can be;
- Continue to remind fellow United Methodists of the big picture, from the clear New Testament obligation to continually “contend for the faith” within the church itself to the reality of progressive United Methodists living on borrowed time, with large, growing U.S. annual conferences overwhelming rejecting the LGBTQ agenda, young United Methodists rejecting marriage-redefinition, our denomination becoming increasingly dominated by more biblically faithful non-American members, and progressive-dominated regions of the church rapidly declining into irrelevancy;
- Build on strong support already seen to work to reform our accountability structures to require clear, meaningful, deterrent penalties for clergy who choose to violate our marriage standards and to remove from bishops the powers they have abused to prevent accountability;
- Relentlessly insist on accountability for covenant-breaking clergy and denominational leaders, never being intimidated or accepting defeat; and
- Walk in unity with all willing to walk in Christian unity with us.
The renewal and reform of our beloved denomination is ultimately a much more fundamental, long-term effort than addressing the most immediate challenges. Thus, UMAction is committed to rebuilding a culture of loving moral and doctrinal accountability at all levels of United Methodism. We will encourage evangelical United Methodist church-planting efforts that will reach new people, including younger people, for Christ far more effectively than liberal congregations hanging rainbow flags on their decaying buildings.
We will also help fellow United Methodists discuss the need to dissolve the radicalized Western Jurisdiction, which seems to be bizarrely seeking to become a sort of autonomous “dumping ground” for failed liberal clergy from other regions, to merge into one or both of the neighboring jurisdictions. Now that this region’s ever-plummeting membership has fallen below that of some annual conferences, it simply makes no administrative sense to continue it as a separate jurisdiction. As a first step, it is high time for our denomination to stop squandering our limited resources for ministry by ending the subsidy currently giving the Western Jurisdiction more bishops and corresponding denominational influence than their own churches will pay for.
Another long-term conversation our denomination needs to have concerns the wisdom of our current constitutional rules giving our clergy an unqualified right to a trial. UMAction certainly affirms the general importance of protecting those wrongfully accused of being wrongfully punished. But for cases in which the facts of someone’s wrongdoing are not disputed, this could eventually be modified to prevent renegade clergy from imposing all kinds of unnecessary costs and heartache on an entire annual conference by insisting on an ugly church trial before they can be held accountable.
We invite our fellow United Methodist brothers and sisters from across our global connection to join us in these commitments and conversations.