Retired United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague

Methodist Bishops & False Doctrine

on May 19, 2017

There’s been lots of recent attention on United Methodism’s lesbian bishop, Karen Oliveto, against whom the church’s top court recently ruled for violating church law on Christian sexual ethics.

But controversial retired United Methodist Bishop Joseph Sprague, who denied Christ’s eternal deity and other Christian doctrines, recently reemerged, speaking in April in Arlington, Virginia at the National United Methodist Caretakers of God’s Creation Conference, co-organized by United Methodist Women.

Although Oliveto faces further judicial action, Sprague was cleared in 2003 of violating church doctrine. In 1999 Sprague, who was elected bishop in 1996, promoted to his clergy a book by Marcus Borg, a self described “panentheist” who asserted beliefs about Jesus as messiah were invented by the early church.

In 2002 Sprague spoke at United Methodist Iliff Seminary in Denver, where he denied Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and atoning death, asserting that Jesus was not born divine but become divine through the faithfulness of his earthly walk, with the implication that others could follow suit. His book repeating this theology, Affirmations of a Dissenter, was published the same year. Sprague suggested an alternative Trinity of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. (I doubt either MLK or Gandhi would accept this honor!) In 2000 he was arrested performing civil disobedience at the United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, where he protested church policy against homosexual behavior. Ostensibly during his few moments of incarceration, he wrote “Pastoral Letter from Cleveland,” which attempted to echo Martin Luther King’s more famous message from Birmingham.

Unusually in United Methodism, in which bishops don’t typically challenge each other, Sprague’s heterodox denial of Christ’s eternal deity was publicly critiqued by Florida Bishop Timothy Whitaker and later by North Carolina Bishop Marion Edwards.

Sprague retired in 2004, earlier than required, perhaps due to controversy. A plan for him to become chaplain of the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill was blocked because of his notoriety. He largely has stayed out of the public eye in retirement. In 2013 he wrote a public letter affirming retired Bishop Melvin Talbert’s celebration of a same sex rite in violation of church law. In Social Gospel fashion, Sprague suggested instead that “all United Methodists dedicate ourselves anew to following Jesus by freeing children from poverty, liberating the captives, and working to eliminate violence, mayhem, and war.” He did not explain how Christians, without the foundations of their faith, can indefinitely wage such justice battles.

Last month at the United Methodist Women’s environmental conference Sprague recalled addressing some women prison inmates, most of whom were “fundamentalist Christians,” and one of whom asked him for his ultimate hope, to which he responded:

Let us return to that brutally candid, young Appalachian inmate at the Ohio Reformatory for Women, “OK,” she said in response to my confession, “but when you are down, and believe me, we here in prison know down, what do you do?” Pensively, I responded, “I try to immerse myself in beloved community; to push my too proud self back into the care and company of intimate friends and fellow travelers that I/we might be helped to remember potent empowering stories and ponder anew the Eternal Yes in the heart of the Great Mystery made normatively visible in Jesus.

How likely were these prison inmates to have been inspired by by Sprague’s vague “Great Mystery?” Such rhetoric might fuel seminary trained Methodist activists of a bygone generation but is thin gruel for most people, much less the incarcerated. Liberal Protestant theology typically has a limited audience and shelf life.

Sprague’s open defiance of core Methodist and Christian doctrine nearly twenty years ago illustrates that Methodism’s divisions and theological confusion are not new. Jim Heidinger’s new history of Methodist liberalism, which I reviewed here, recalls the last real heresy trial in Methodism was in 1904, when a a highly influential seminary professor who rejected Christian orthodoxy prevailed.

Liberal theology governed Methodism for most of the 20th century. To whom will the 21st century belong? For all the loud noise from dissidents like Karen Oliveto, whose radical and fast shrinking Western Jurisdiction now has less than three percent of United Methodism’s membership, the demographic future of theological liberalism looks grim. Sprague in his recent speech bemoaned the “increasingly reactionary state of the church.”

By “reactionary” Sprague presumably means a church faithful to apostolic Christianity. The good news is that the apostolic witness always in the end prevails against the faddish alternatives.

  1. Comment by Duane Anders on May 19, 2017 at 12:17 pm

    Bishop Sprague is a follower of Jesus. In retirement he served a church for us in West Ohio. He has been an inspirational voice and leader. He follows the holy mystery which is God. Honored to serve with him

  2. Comment by Adam Borsay on May 19, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Followed of Jesus???? He denies Jesus eternal nature as part of the Trinity. That, by definition, means he is not a Christian…..And we can say that confidently without even beginning to address his other numerous heresies.

  3. Comment by Ryan on May 24, 2017 at 12:48 am

    You might want to double check 1 John 2:22-23

  4. Comment by theenemyhatesclarity on May 19, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    Bishop Sprague is a heretic. I wonder how many good souls he led down the primrose path. What he did in denying the divinity of Christ is much worse than the current sins of the progressives.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  5. Comment by John Smith on June 5, 2017 at 7:24 am

    And yet he is still a Bishop and people wonder at the current confused mess that is the UMC.

  6. Comment by Pudentiana on May 19, 2017 at 1:58 pm

    The sad comparison of the above 2 comments serves to highlight the two perspectives of the Holy Scriptures. One sees it as some mysterious tome passed down the ages which guides today’s wisdom. The other perceives it as the Spirit Inspired Eternal Revelation of God ‘s character and grand invitation and provision for humankind to join in His Holy Fellowship. I choose Door #2.

  7. Comment by Dan on May 19, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Sprague is sadly the UMC version of The Episcopal Church’s Bishop Pike. Both clear heretics, but for reasons of compassion (i.e., no cojones) the dear bishops of neither denomination could bring themselves to try and convict on heresy charges.

    As St. Athanasius so aptly put it, “the floor of Hell is paved with the skulls of bishops.” I only wish the UMC bishops would take to heart what Pope St. Gregory the Great said, “It is better that scandals arise than the truth be suppressed.”

  8. Comment by Richard D Facemyer on May 19, 2017 at 5:41 pm

    Joseph Sprague was and his heresies were defeated at the resurection. The Liar continues his mission of spreading confusion as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He is not a Christian, and hardly pretends to be. It is surprising that any who claims Christ Salvation might also associate with Joseph Sprague in any

  9. Comment by Bill Payne on May 19, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    If we learn anything from the current crisis confronting the UMC, we really must reform the CoB in order to reform the institution. For starters, let’s call them what they are, general superintendents. They are not ordained bishops and should not hold an office or a title after they retire. In fact, they are elders consecrated to a special ministry of general oversight. I say, every bishop should be elected to a 4 year term and return to his or her annual conference after that term is completed unless the person is re-elected. A permanent cadre of bishops only causes problems.

  10. Comment by dave miller on May 19, 2017 at 10:55 pm

    I agree with Bill’s take. Bishops should not be ordained but simply serve for a period of time before returning to a local church. The permanent class of Bishops allow far too much unaccountable mischief to take place.

  11. Comment by Lawrence Kreh on May 21, 2017 at 2:50 am

    The takeaway here is that orthodox theology has not been a focused priority among UMC conservatives until the issue of homosexual ordination and marriage arose. We might be reasonably be asked, why are conservatives so focused on that one issue alone? This article takes us back to basics, where we should be.

  12. Comment by Rev. Mike Childs on May 22, 2017 at 12:47 am

    BIshop Sprague is a sincere man who is no doubt a compassionate social reformer. What he is not is a Christian. Anyone who rejects the incarnation and the resurrection is simply outside the boundaries of Christian faith. Sprague is a heretic and false prophet. He is deceived and a deciever. It speaks worse of the UMC that Sprague served as a bishop than that Oliveto serves as a bishop. Shame on the UMC Bishops that did not condemn his teaching. Only a few were willing to publicly disagree with him. I do not think any bishop labeled his theology as unchristian. Why are we surprised that we are where we are.

  13. Comment by theenemyhatesclarity on May 22, 2017 at 7:02 am

    And it is worth remembering that one of the 3 member panel of Bishops who gave Sprague a pass on his heresy back in 2003 was none other than Bruce Ought, current president of the Council of Bishops.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  14. Comment by theenemyhatesclarity on May 22, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    Bishop Ough, not Ought, sorry.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  15. Comment by Morris B on May 24, 2017 at 10:58 pm

    This is a good reason for term limits for bishops. I think, maybe, some were afraid of loosing their position to vote their conscience.

  16. Comment by Jim on May 25, 2017 at 4:40 pm

    Thank you Mike for your very appropriate comment.

  17. Comment by Carole on November 1, 2018 at 6:35 pm


  18. Comment by Nancy Smith on May 23, 2017 at 10:12 am

    For a clearer understanding of all this, see

  19. Comment by Skipper Anding on May 23, 2017 at 4:04 pm

    The tragedy of these wayward bishops is that they are being unfaithful to God. Some know they are being unfaithful and others have been so deceived that they no longer care. A teacher who misguides others will surely face serious consequences in the hereafter. Nicodemus tells us the Pharisees knew Jesus was from God but they condemned Him for healing on the Lord’s Day anyway. How can healing be bad? Likewise, the Wayward Bishops have got to know sexual perversion is a very serious sin; however they can’t bring themselves to turn back to Christ.

  20. Comment by Aaron on May 26, 2017 at 12:55 am

    Jesus will surely welcome bishop Sprague with open arms, for he really is living the Matthew 25:40 and the two most important commandments of Loving God and Loving neighbor.

    I hope all these commenters above me can get back to the heart of worship and really follow Jesus’ teachings.

  21. Comment by Norm Clow on May 26, 2017 at 4:46 pm

    Uh, hold on a second here . . . if self-defined and proven heretic Sprague is right about Jesus, which of course he isn’t, there will be no Jesus waiting to welcome him with open arms. On the other hand, if he’s wrong, and he is, do you really think Jesus is going to welcome with open arms the man who denied everything Jesus taught about himself and that Scripture supports? Really? You mention Jesus’ teachings. What did he teach about Himself? Who are we told to believe He is? That’s the foundation of it all,and Sprague rejects it categorically. This has nothing to do with the good works you might do, which as Paul says are filthy rags in the absence of Christ, but about who we believe Jesus Christ is. To say nothing of your complete misunderstanding of the context and audience of Matthew 25:40.

  22. Comment by Doug on June 2, 2017 at 4:59 pm

    Interesting to note in the picture of retired Bishop Sprague you used is he is standing next to Rev. Greg Dell, former pastor of Broadway UMC in Chicago (deceased). Dell was one of the first taken to trial for blessing a same-sex union, in about 1999, and Sprague’s punishment for Dell following the guilty verdict was a 1 day suspension…

  23. Comment by Randy Gibson on June 4, 2017 at 3:34 pm

    The Church of Jesus Christ does not exist to worship, ordain nor proclaim human proclivities. It is instituted as the “Bride of Christ” to proclaim His light and truth to a world in darkness.

    In our society today an overwhelming majority are blind to the darkness that is closing in upon us. Those in darkness insist that we cast away the Light and dwell in darkness with them.

    I can answer only for myself… I cannot exist apart from the Light of the World who is Christ Jesus.

    Though I dearly love those souls in darkness and sin and pray for their salvation, they have conditioned any relationship with themselves upon our silence concerning their darkness and sin.

    They feel free to revel in their sin and rub our noses in it. We are individually and corporately shamed when we proclaim the Gospel message in the face of their sin.

    They proclaim a “new revelation” that God didn’t mean what two millennia of believers understood him to say. They claim a license to sin they assert is endorsed by their god.

    Our Creator God is the author of our freedom to choose; even to choose that which He has said would separate us from Him.

    My brothers and sisters may insist it is their right to dwell in sin and darkness if they so choose. So be it. I readily concede that freedom.

    But I will not relinquish my own God given freedom to choose to follow God’s Light in Christ, as I am called, and reject dwelling in darkness and sin.

    Further, pastors are not called by the members they serve in order to endorse their carnal desires. Rather, they are called by God to uphold and proclaim His Holy Word.

    We must confront sin even and especially when society says it is no longer sin. Either we serve God or society. I choose God.

  24. Comment by Kelly on April 26, 2018 at 11:39 am

    Great comments. What a relief to see so many that are biblically literate. Amongst the comments I would simply like to add that Paul’s letter to Timothy applies more today than ever. 2Tim4:3-5.

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