There are many challenges facing United Methodism today. IRD’s UMAction program will continue to report on these and vigorously push for corrective action where needed.
But we must not lose sight of the many exciting, amazingly positive things that have happened in our denomination in 2016.
Inspired by the practice of my colleague, Chelsen Vicari, of compiling annual Thanksgiving lists of ten things for which evangelicals can be thankful, I present this list of ten very major things for which United Methodists can specifically be thankful in 2016.
1. General Conference Maintaining Biblical Standards on Marriage and Sex
Given the dramatic shifts in American culture, some high-profile theological defections of a couple prominent United Methodist leaders, the cynically dishonest rhetoric of touting the Connectional Table’s liberalization proposal as “a compromise,” and the strong push of loud protesters working with some of the most powerful leaders in our denomination, it was no small thing that attempts to officially liberalize our church’s teachings and standards on marriage and sexuality were all decisively defeated at the United Methodist Church’s 2016 General Conference.
But defeated they were. Not one of the Connectional Table’s plans to make our church’s moral standards more lax even passed its legislative committee. The committee voting in the first week revealed that this was what many observed to be the most theologically orthodox group of General Conference ever assembled in modern times.
And so, for the second General Conference in a row, revisionists gave up even trying to get a final vote on their petitions to allow for same-sex unions or the ordination of clergy who are openly sexually active outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage.
Furthermore, multiple efforts to restructure our denomination to allow the U.S. portion to set its own morality without any input from peskily orthodox-leaning African United Methodists were soundly defeated in committee.
This has made very clear that at the General Conference level, our denomination is not merely “holding the line” in not following the “mainline” American denominations’ disastrous path, but is actively trending in an opposite, more faithful direction toward what Dr. Billy Abraham calls “a unique, global, and orthodox denomination.”
The door has been firmly closed against a realistic path for a General Conference in the foreseeable future to officially authorize pastorally harmful same-sex “sin blessing” services or the ordination of individuals not personally committed to basic Christian standards of sexual self-control.
2. The shift in the Judicial Council
At the 2016 General Conference, we elected several new members to our denomination’s supreme court – known as the Judicial Council – all of whom were supported by evangelical delegates. Following up on those encouraging election results, the new Judicial Council’s first meeting of the 2016-2020 term shows them moving towards upholding the covenant of our denomination’s Discipline and moving away from the liberal judicial activism seen before the new folk were elected, as I previously noted here.
3. The Commitment of Regional Leaders to Uphold the Discipline
There are major problems with some bishops and others in the northern and western parts of the United States going rogue by openly defying our denomination’s biblical standards on marriage and sexuality. UMAction continues working to bring accountability in these areas, and will never accept these violations of our connectional covenant.
But as we work on this, it is important to keep in mind both the fact that these regions represent only a minority portion of our denomination (and a shrinking one at that) and how leaders from the rest of the church have strongly expressed their commitment to uphold these same biblical standards of our Book of Discipline and in some cases have directly challenged the disobedience movement.
Outside of America, the African bishops have all strongly challenged departures from biblical teaching on sexuality while making clear their commitment to upholding our denominational covenant. Also, the Filipino bishops have all declared their intention to uphold our standards, while the Northern Europe and Eurasia Central Conference has indicated its strong disapproval of covenant-breaking actions.
Within the United States, the bishops of the Southeastern Jurisdiction issued a strong statement repudiating the disobedience movement and expressing their communal commitment to uphold our standards, the South Central Jurisdiction overwhelmingly approved a commitment to uphold our standards, even the liberal-leaning North Central Jurisdiction rejected a call to never insist on enforcing our standards on sexual morality, and the bishops of at least two of the larger annual conferences in the Northeast publicly declared their strong commitment to upholding our standards. Even in the liberal Baltimore-Washington Conference, disobedience activists failed to approve a lesbian activist ordination candidate, even with the support of relevant conference leadership.
The regions pushing statements and actions of “non-conformity” are the exception, not the rule. And speaking of which…
4. The Shift of Denominational Membership
The latest membership data show a continued imbalanced shift so that denominational membership is becoming increasingly concentrated in more theologically orthodox regions, while the most radicalized regions are rapidly dying out.
At the congregational level, our research has found evangelicals largely pastoring the fastest-growing large United Methodist churches. I recently spoke with a United Methodist pastor who found that, contrary to the “scarcity” mentality too many pastors have of seeing the current population of their pews as a ceiling, his taking a strong public stand for Christian orthodoxy in our denomination ended up encouraging many new people to join his congregation.
Of infinite, eternal value is how these growing evangelical United Methodist congregations around the world are bringing more and more lost people into new life in Christ Jesus.
And the more the membership shifts, the more this influence will inevitably be felt in denominational decision-making. We are seeing some of this already, such as when at the last General Conference, African delegates flexed their collective muscles to ensure that non-American United Methodist seminaries receive a fairer share of denominational funding.
5. Asbury Theological Seminary’s Growing Influence
As a solidly evangelical Wesleyan institution, Asbury has been a key positive influence in our denomination. The pipeline of new ministers getting ordained in our system is disproportionately populated by Asbury grads.
The Asbury-linked New Room movement is growing in momentum.
Asbury’s growing influence is finally trickling into the highest levels of our denominational leadership.
I am told that before 2004, our denomination had never elected a bishop who was educated at Asbury. Now we have United Methodist bishops in Africa, Europe, and the Southeastern, Northeastern, South Central, and North Central Jurisdictions who studied at Asbury. This barrier in the latter two regions was only broken this last summer.
Once a region has elected its first Asbury-educated bishop, this should make it much easier for another to later get elected from that same region. And then another. And another. And many more to come!
6. United Theological Seminary’s Ongoing Transformation
Another bright spot in our denomination’s seminary education is what God continues to do at United Theological Seminary.
Before the last few years, when was the last time we saw top administrators at an official United Methodist seminary take such public leadership as Wendy Deichmann and David Watson have in aligning with the renewal movement?
And when was the last time anyone saw an official United Methodist seminary take the non-theoretical, supernatural work of the Holy Spirit so seriously, let alone to the point of formally partnering with the charismatic Aldersgate Renewal Ministries?
This is all the more remarkable in light of how United was just another liberal mainline seminary not that long ago.
7. Our Denomination’s Dramatic Turnaround on Abortion
It would be difficult to overstate what a HUGE deal it is that this year’s General Conference overwhelmingly ended our denomination’s formal affiliation with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC).
So many had worked for that day for decades, only seeing heart-breaking defeats—until last May. One senior leader in our denomination recently told me, with joy, that s/he thought s/he’d never see the day when we finally broke up with RCRC.
Just as significant, although for some reason not attracting as much attention, was the similarly overwhelming vote to repeal a 40-year-old denominational resolution affirming abortion on demand. While there remains much work to do in building a culture of life in our denomination, this is a VERY major shift in our denomination’s official position.
8. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA)
Orthodox United Methodists now have a network for covenantally connecting with each other.
The response to the WCA’s inaugural meeting last month was overwhelming. Over 1,700 people from around the country (including several pastors from the Western Jurisdiction) packed into a large ballroom. The public support shown by several bishops was unprecedented for the renewal movement. So many people signed up as charter members on the spot that they ran out of forms.
Clearly, there is a lot of energy and hunger of a great mass of United Methodists who are steadfastly committed to historic United Methodist doctrine and discipline, and are committed to walking forward together on that basis.
9. Turnaround on Israel Divestment
I will admit that I was not terribly surprised by the overwhelming defeat at this last General Conference of petitions to single out the world’s lone Jewish state for divestment (with some supporters of such moves at the same time calling for investment in totalitarian North Korea).
That does represent a welcome victory for all who want our church’s witness on social issues to be thoughtful, informed, and morally consistent.
But perhaps the single biggest surprise of all legislative actions at this last General Conference was the decision to call on our denomination’s General Board of Global Ministries to end its support of U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which is devoted to demonizing Israel with Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS)—even though the GBGM itself helped establish this group.
And the General Conference’s vote on this was not even close.
This was dramatically better-than-expected movement of our denomination away from the far-left, anti-Israel political extremism of the past.
10. Future General Conferences Getting Better
I apologize for this one being a bit insider-baseball.
But there have been major problems with the supreme governing body of our denomination, the General Conference, being run in fundamentally unfair and even downright dysfunctional ways.
But this year’s General Conference has amended the Book of Discipline, with a couple petitions passed in the legislative committee in which I was privileged to serve as an elected delegate, to save future General Conferences from many of these problems.
One major change was to require that key daily information from the Daily Christian Advocates printed at General Conference be translated into French, Swahili, and Portuguese. While this information has been crucial for enabling delegates to understand which petitions are being voted on and to have some time to prepare accordingly, at all previous General Conferences this was printed only for the benefit of English-speaking delegates and visitors. The lack of printed translations put many non-American delegates at a major disadvantage. It will never be that way again.
We also changed the Discipline to require delegates to actually do the work the church is paying them to do, by giving each duly submitted petition a fair up-or-down vote in its legislative committee, and by requiring every petition approved by its legislative committee to receive a final vote in plenary session. This should go a long way to reducing some of the frustrating dysfunctionality we have seen at recent General Conferences.