This article is part of a series of writings about the new “Uniting Methodists” caucus group within the UMC, led by Adam Hamilton, some high-profile leaders within general agency and liberal caucus circles, and others. Within these articles, I have put in bold sentences for which I would especially welcome feedback in the comments if I have missed something major. I have put *stars in front of the names of individuals on the “Uniting Methodists” leadership team. Articles in this series will be released over the course of several days. The “Uniting Methodists” group is examined in light of the following:
It is well established that “Uniting Methodists” is a solidly liberal caucus on matters related to sexual morality, and even on the extreme end of liberalism in terms of disobedience to our denominational covenant. But what about core theology on really core, central, fundamental Christian doctrine, on more basic questions than sexuality?
While this new group talks about evangelism and several of its leaders have impressive track records of growing churches, core theology is a more meaningful area to examine than a simple statement vaguely affirming evangelism. After all, before we talk about working together to “spread the faith,” we should try to have some basic idea of the content of the faith.
I recall seeing one genuine centrist publicly offer the strong criticism that the “Uniting Methodists” group seemed to be making a public point of paying lip service to supporting the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards (which refers very specifically to four documents: the Methodist Articles of Religion, the EUB Confession of Faith, John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons) without having any agenda of actually defending them.
How fair is such a charge?
First of all, the idea that sexuality can be completely separated from foundational doctrine is itself problematic. My friend, Talbot Davis, pastor of one of our denomination’s fastest-growing congregations, explains here why revisionist sexuality and high Christology is not a sustainable combination. And I have laid out a comprehensive case for why the claim by “Uniting Methodists” to “accept and uphold” the UMC’s core doctrine, if serious, would especially rule out their main priority of affirming homosexual unions. It is simply not intellectually serious for them to claim to be loyal to the UMC’s core doctrine while making no effort to explain how this can be reconciled with their rejecting the clear teaching of these specific documents on sexuality, and making no response to arguments such as mine.
But this caucus’s extended Vision Statement would simply take concern for following the boundaries of Scripture and of faithfulness to historic, orthodox Christian teaching off of the table. Because, the “Uniting Methodists” assure us (without much actual argument) that United Methodists are generally already being “biblical and faithful.”
This of course flies in the face of clear warnings throughout the New Testament to be on guard for the church being infiltrated by false teachings and unfaithful practices. And this group’s insisting that the UMC’s divides remain in the boundaries of biblical faithfulness, with no teachings from liberal factions being too extreme for the “Uniting Methodists” to call out, is rather striking. Does nothing from the liberal faction go too far?
You may recall how retired Bishop Joseph Sprague, a hero in liberal caucus circles, provoked a major controversy in the early 2000s by publicly denying such foundational Christian doctrines as the virginal conception and physical resurrection of Christ (which are clearly affirmed in the UMC Doctrinal Standards, and by all orthodox believers).
More recently, I saw a Twitter exchange in which *Adam Hamilton dismissed concern about Sprague as “the fringe” which “represents a very tiny fraction of the church.” I would agree that Sprague only represents only a minority of the UMC. But when someone who so fundamentally rejects the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards is elevated to the office of bishop, and uses that office to lead many others astray, is that not worth more concern from Hamilton and others supposedly committed to our Doctrinal Standards beyond just “Move along, nothing to see here” dismissals?
I know *Hamilton does not share Sprague’s theology. But if rejecting Sprague’s theology was the consensus among this group’s leaders, and if they really saw such attacks on core doctrine as too “fringe” to be a problem, and if they were not taking care to avoid losing support among their liberal base constituency, then it should not be so hard to find any “Uniting Methodists” leaders willing to say that someone with such heretical beliefs should not be a UMC bishop.
But I don’t know where any of this caucus’s leaders were when IRD/UMAction and other renewal groups were seeking accountability for Sprague, and taking some heat for this.
Actually, I do know where some of them were. In the most literal sense, *Lonnie Chafin was rather close to Sprague, serving as his conference treasurer for four years and having been hired for this senior leadership role in 2000, in the middle of Sprague’s term as bishop. In 2002, the United Methodist Publishing House, under President *Neil Alexander (a role recently passed onto *Brian Milford), published Sprague’s Affirmations Of A Dissenter further laying out his rejection of core Christian, United Methodist doctrine.
In this book published by Alexander and Milford’s press, Mr. Sprague claims that “Jesus simply did not preach, teach, or describe himself as John suggests” (page 39), declares that “Jesus was not born the Christ” but rather “he became the Christ, God’s beloved in whom God was well pleased” (page 39), saysthat he is “certain” that believing in an actual “bodily resurrection” of Jesus “is the kind of idolatry from which I dissent” (page 43), promotes universalistic affirmation of other religions (pages 43-44), denies that Christ’s blood shed on the cross paid the penalty for human sin (pages 44-45)—and that’s all just in one chapter!
When people work closely with someone like Joseph Sprague or literally work to spread and seek to profit from his denials of the UMC Doctrinal Standards, how much credibility should they be granted when they suddenly claim to of course “accept and uphold” these same UMC Doctrinal Standards when it is politically convenient?
I am not aware of a single “Uniting Methodists” leader spending any political capital to clearly say that someone with Sprague’s beliefs should not be a United Methodist bishop.
Speaking of the bishop’s office, those in “Uniting Methodists” like *David Nuckols, *Theresa Thames, *DJ Del Rosario, *Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, *Doug Damron publicly supporting Karen Oliveto in various ways have been doing so in spite of her bizarre theology of repudiating some of Jesus Christ’s own red-letter teachings while bizarrely defending the alleged benefits of demon possession, or her more recently public statement undermining the deity and sinlessness of Jesus, and actually claiming that he needed “conversion” away from “his bigotries and prejudices.” When I posted about the latter anti-Jesus teaching by Oliveto in an online forum, the ONLY concern *Damron felt was worth expressing was my alleged need to accept Oliveto as a legitimate bishop, declaring “She deserves the upmost respect of the office, and though she does not lead my area, she is a Bishop for all of us.”
Either these pro-Oliveto leaders in this caucus see no problem with Oliveto’s attacks on core Christian and United Methodist doctrine, or they view her being a partnered lesbian as somehow making up for blatant heresy. In any case, I am not aware of a single “Uniting Methodists” leader willing to say that aside from sexuality questions, Oliveto’s bizarre pro-demon, anti-Jesus theology should be enough to disqualify her from being bishop.
There are several other noteworthy questions about core doctrine with several leaders.
On the Facebook page of *Damron and *Slaughter’s UMCM group, they effectively defended the notorious 1993 Re-Imagining Conference by promoting an article from a secular, far-left magazine decrying the fact IRD and others had protested that event’s extremely unorthodox teachings, which ranged from New Age pantheism to worship of “Sophia” to one speaker’s call to “imagine sex among friends as the norm.”
Back when I was living in Washington, D.C. and looking for a United Methodist congregation to join, I visited Capitol Hill UMC, which was being pastored by *Ginger Gaines-Cirelli. I still remember how the shallow liberalism of the sermon and service was too much even for my much more liberally minded, gay-rights-supporting friend who had come with me, and how it included *Gaines-Cirelli mentioning that she preferred talking about the “kin-dom” rather than “kingdom” of God. This substitute is a stale old linguistic move favored by some theological radicals, and serves to avoid what biblical language teaches about God’s proper superiority, to shift the focus to humanity, and to fit in with a wider radical feminist pattern of avoiding some masculine words and pronouns used for God in the Bible (which would logically include the basic confession that Jesus is Lord).
The “What We Believe” statement of the church pastored by *Juan Huertas church says many wonderful things. But it includes a striking statement: “We recognize that all people are God’s children….” Certainly, ALL people are lovingly created in God’s image. But the New Testament clearly uses “children of God” to refer to that minority of humanity who became so through adoption. Jesus was not shy about identifying some people as children of the devil. Describing everyone as already being a child of God suggests there is no need for adoption, which ultimately points towards universalism. While I realize that the phrase “child of God” is frequently misused, I would expect a theologically trained pastor of a large congregation to know better – if he is coming from a shared perspective of a high view of Scripture.
*Hamilton has raised eyebrows by dividing Scripture into three buckets, with the third bucket being parts of the Bible which he says “never ever reflected the heart and character of God,” as he finds them too challenging to accept. This does not sound very different from Oliveto’s calling to acknowledge both “the benefits and flaws” of Scripture. While Hamilton focuses more on rejecting passages that point to how seriously God takes sin and Oliveto is less systematic, both move us away from a high view of Scripture as, in the words of the EUB Confession of Faith (in the UMC Doctrinal Standards), “the true rule and guide for faith and life.”
I have also noted earlier how Wesley’s Standard Sermons are rather strong in declaring that “All that is written in the book of God we are to declare,” without ignoring passages that some may find offensive, and defining true Christian faith as including, at a minimum, “an unshaken assent to all that God hath revealed in Scripture” or “believ[ing], both that Jesus is the Christ, and that all Scripture, having been given by inspiration of God, is true as God is true” (emphases added). Clearly Hamilton and others following his “bucket list” reject this repeated teaching of the UMC’s Doctrinal Standards. So how is it intellectually honest for them to claim otherwise when it seems politically convenient?
Furthermore, Hamilton’s selective approach to Scripture is ultimately not very different from the sort of rhetoric we have long heard from other liberal UMC caucus activists, such as a Reconciling Ministries Network gathering explicitly urging people to “perhaps just rip out and leave” parts of the Bible we dislike “for the wind and the rain to disintegrate them, and then start listening to the wind and the rain.”
Given how Hamilton’s revisionist position on homosexuality is ultimately rooted in his “bucket” list of rejecting several parts of Scripture the rest of us still accept, such rhetoric from his allies, and how other liberal UMC leaders have long acknowledged that our disagreements over sexuality stem from far deeper divides over such core matters as our view of Scripture, how is it really intellectually honest for Hamilton’s new caucus to claim “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority”?
It is also worth considering how the practical fallout of the “Uniting Methodists” agenda amounts to keeping the United Methodist Church safe for Unitarian Universalism, and for all manner of rejecting the UMC Doctrinal Standards. After all, the experience has shown that whenever a denomination makes the liberalizing changes on sexual morality this caucus is seeking, a whole lot of orthodox congregations and pastors leave. In practice, this would remove many helpful pressures on church leaders who may want to promote Unitarianism, universalism, or other false teachings, and make clear that they could now do so without nearly as much resistance.
All of the above would seem to point to far deeper divides about core doctrine and theology than only on matters of sexuality. This merits honest exploration, not papering over with hasty, one-sentence affirmations of UMC doctrine.