Recently 14 United Methodist bishops in Africa, collectively representing 5 million United Methodists in Africa’s growing churches, spoke out remarkably on the topics of terrorism and marriage.
Their words were very different from rhetoric typical of the long declining U.S. church.
(One of the bishops, David Yemba of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, pictured above, recently visited my office as part of an ecumenical Congolese delegation of church leaders with the National Endowment for Democracy.)
Speaking well before the recent Paris terror, the African United Methodist bishops cited Islamist terror groups like Nigeria-based Boko Haram and Somalia-based Al-Shabab for their “atrocities and mayhem,” such as suicide bombings, kidnappings and rape. They prayed for “divine intervention” and for the “persecuted church,” pledging to search for practical counter measures to “needless suffering.”
The African bishops were too polite to mention that U.S. church agencies and officials almost never talk about terrorism per se, instead lamenting “violence,” often implying no major moral distinction between terrorism and military/police action against it. I can recall no major official United Methodist attention in the U.S. to Boko Haram and Al-Shabab, which have murdered thousands of Africans, targeting Christians especially.
Unlike protected, wealthy Americans, the Africans must actually live with and contend against these ongoing Islamist terror forces. They don’t have our luxury of detached, abstract theorizing about “violence.”
The African bishops also spoke up strongly in defense of United Methodist biblical teaching on marriage, which next year’s governing General Conference will again debate. Here are their words:
Marriage and Sexuality
Over the past four decades, from 1972 until the present, we have watched with shock and dismay the rapid drift of our denomination from this Holy call to a warm embrace of practices that have become sources of conflict that now threatens to rip the Church apart and distract her from the mission of leading persons to faith and making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. One of such practices is the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender).
We are deeply saddened that the Holy Bible, our primary authority for faith and the practice of Christian living, and our Book of Discipline are being grossly ignored by some members and leaders of our Church in favor of social and cultural practices that have no scriptural basis for acceptance in Christian worship and conduct. Yet they continue to attempt to persuade members of the Church to incorporate these practices as an accepted code of conduct within global United Methodism.
As leaders of the church in Africa, we call upon all United Methodists, Bishops, clergy and Laity to an unreserved commitment to the Holy Bible as the primary authority for faith and practice in the church. We call upon all members throughout the connection to adopt practices consistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures. We submit to the teachings of Scripture that God designed marriage to be between man and woman, and the procreation of children is a blessing from God (Gen. 2:24-25; Psalm 127:3-5). Scripture also teaches that all persons are sexual beings, whether or not they are married. However, sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant bond of a faithful monogamous, heterosexual marriage, and not within same-sex unions or polygamy. The Christian marriage covenant is holy, sacred, and consecrated by God and is expressed in shared fidelity between one man and one woman for life. In this vein, we denounce all forms of sexual exploitation, including fornication, adultery, sexual commercialization, slavery, abuse, polygamy, etc.
As shepherds of God’s flock, we covenant to be in ministry with those of our members who adopt practices that are inconsistent with the teachings of the Holy Scriptures.
The bishops concluded by urging that the 2016 General Conference include “daily prayer sessions for the return of our denomination to Biblical teachings, the unity of the church, global terrorism (remembering the millions of refugees) and the cessation of wars around the globe.”
They also asked that the Council of Bishops “commit to demonstrating their shepherding responsibility (1 Peter 5:2-4) by acting consistently with the Holy Bible for to do otherwise would require that one must recuse himself or herself from the divine call to be Shepherd of all of God’s people.”
There is almost no precedent in the modern history of United Methodism for a group of bishops to speak out forcefully in defense of traditional Christian doctrine. And there’s no precedent for the African bishops together speaking publicly. This statement represents an important turning point for our church.
The Africans increasingly realize they represent the emerging majority of our church, an awareness that requires accepting increasing responsibility. Membership statistics indicate the U.S. church lost another 100,000 members or so in 2014, now standing at 7.2 million, having lost nearly 4 million members in 45 years. Meanwhile United Methodism in Africa stands at nearly 5 million and grows 200,000 annually, soon to become a majority, perhaps in 8 years or less.
American Methodism is exhausted and depleted. There are pockets of vitality but they prosper despite not because of the denomination, whose governing elites have presided over a half century of decline, institutional inertia and theological discordance.
But the Lord is preserving and reviving global United Methodism through Africa, without which our denomination would have long ago suffered the schism and accelerated decline of nearly all other U.S. Mainline Protestant denominations after they abandoned Christian teaching about marriage. While the American Mainline dies, United Methodism is a growing soon to be 13 million member denomination.
The further globalization and Africanization of United Methodism will discomfit many U.S. church members. Liberals of course are exasperated that they no longer can hope to sexually liberalize official church teaching, after their 40 year battle. Moderate institutionalists will lose power and authority over the church bureaucracy. And many conservatives will not appreciate that the new standard bearers of orthodoxy are in Africa and are far more numerous than United Methodist Evangelicals in America.
There will be many, many growing pains for United Methodism. An old identity that was failing but familiar is dying, and the new identity is foreign and untried. But this transformation is the salvation of our church, so let’s thank God for it.