Divided We Stand – Report on Launch Event for “Uniting Methodists”

Sara Anderson on November 28, 2017

Sara Anderson offers her first-hand observations from the initial launch event for the new “Uniting Methodists” group. For further analysis and factual overview of this caucus within the UMC – which is basically a coalition of liberal leaders of denominational agencies, activists affiliated with other liberal caucuses, and Adam Hamilton and some of his disciples – I encourage you to click here

Sara is an IRD board member and United Methodist living in Fort Valley, Georgia. She has served as Chief Operating Officer of Bristol House Publishing and on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Around 200 (and 60 online) Uniting Methodists met in Atlanta November 13-14 promising bringing together United Methodists with varying viewpoints. The group’s literature, handed out to registrants,  stated: “The Uniting Methodists Movement was formed to give voice to these faithful United Methodists and to speak up to urge the church not to divide over disagreements about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ persons. Instead, the movement will find ways to allow all people (whether they see themselves as centrists, progressives, or traditionalists) to remain in one church, engaging one another in earnest ongoing discernment while making room for their differing convictions of conscience.”

However, represented among those leading from the front of the room at this launch of Uniting Methodists was a partnered lesbian on staff with the Reconciling Ministries Network as well as Alex da Silva Souto (an activist in the Queer Clergy Caucus who helped lead closing worship). Attendees included various liberal activists, some of whom I had seen at General Conference during Church and Society committee meetings.

North Georgia’s Resident Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson brought greetings, saying the way forward involved “affirmation of the Triune God, not in a theology of sexuality.” She also added that “John Wesley went out of a rigid church structure.” The bishop also encouraged those present to “be loving and disagree respectfully.” But during this group’s November 13-14 initial “Uniting Conference,” hosted by Rev. Olu Brown’s Impact Church in Atlanta, there seemed to be a whole lot of dividing going on.

Despite promises of inclusion, not a single speaker at the meeting or any of the gathering organizers stood up for the Traditionalist position (the United Methodist Church’s official affirmation of orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality).

In a video presentation at the beginning of the conference, Walter Fenton, vice president for strategic engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and a former Good News staff member, voiced the Traditional perspective. I soon gathered that the WCA was considered the horned and cloven-hooved enemy by many attendees. One pastor who sat at my table during a breakout session described the WCA as “organized hate.”

Fenton’s suggested the church should have respect for the UMC’s traditional teaching and polity instead of defying both. Fenton suggested a “gracious exit for those who could not live with the UMC’s biblical standards. He also urged patience with the Commission on a Way Forward. “The debate has gone on too long,” he said. “Most people are fixed on their positions. We should await the will of the specially called General conference.”

Fenton’s deliberative statements in a number of segments were always followed by those of a female seminary student, also on video, who works at the famously liberal Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The woman appealed to the church to “allow people like me to marry,” and said that though the process of confirmation studies when she was in sixth grade, she came to believe she was a lesbian. She challenged the group to “face injustices against LGBTQ persons” and urged attendees to remove accountability rules for clergy.

A third person, Rev. Justin Coleman, pastor of University Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, commented (via video) on the speakers’ statements after every segment and generally supported the progressive perspective of the second speaker. He reminded the group that “the laws of the land have changed” regarding marriage. At one point he stated, “Think well of the New Jerusalem. Don’t segregate the City.” He later added, “Non-negotiables create idols,” referring to the firm stands for the orthodox faith by traditionalists.

During a panel discussion called, “Here I Stand,” three pastors gave testimony to the progressive position. Stan Copeland, pastor of Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, called himself a Traditional compatibilist, meaning he was willing to allow changes in the discipline while supposedly holding a traditional theological understanding, a seemingly impossible tightrope to walk. He spoke of a lesbian couple attending his church who wanted to “marry” quickly because one woman had received a serious cancer diagnosis. Rev. Copeland bemoaned the fact that, because of UM policy, not one of the congregation’s eight pastors could “marry” the couple, and the couple could not be “married” on the church campus. Copeland said he called some members of his congregation, and eight people offered their homes for the nuptials. Copeland attended the wedding but did not perform the ceremony. He said that the next week he told the congregation about his decision, “and I got a standing ovation.” He then added, “Pastors, you will find that your congregations are much more progressive than you think.”

(Some terms are likely in order here. For the best definitions I’ve read, see: https://pastorcalebsblog.blogspot.com/2017/11/the-central-untruth-that-unravels.html)

A panel discussion, “The Road Ahead: Reflections on the Commission on the Way Forward and Specially Call General Conference 2019,” featured four speakers: Rev. Tom Berlin (pastor of Floris UMC in Herndon, Virginia and a member of the Commission on a Way Forward), Rev. Jasmine Smothers (pastor of Atlanta First UMC and member of the Commission), Helen Ryde (a partnered lesbian and a Reconciling Network employee who was introduced as a “home missionary” and had attended Wesleyan Covenant Association meetings); and, finally, Neil Alexander (president and publisher emeritus of the United Methodist Publishing House).  The panel was moderated by Rachel  Baugham, pastor of Oaklawn UMC in Dallas.

Berlin, who had helpfully informed the group on the workings of the Commission on a Way Forward in a previous panel discussion, told the group that he heard a fellow colleague say that he had “gone to the dark side.”  Berlin, grinning broadly, said, “It took me a long time for me to be disparaged.”

Helen Ryde, a staff member of the Reconciling Network, expressed dismay at Fenton’s suggestion of a “gracious exit” from the denomination. She also expressed frustration that LGBTQ persons were simply “tolerated” in the church. LGBTQ persons should be celebrated, she said, “toleration isn’t good enough anymore.”

Meanwhile, Neil Alexander, publisher emeritus of the UM Publishing House, said the church faced a “deep theological and ecclesiastical conundrum.” He expressed need to grow the Uniting Methodists and “accumulate critical mass” to create a “culture that cultivates holiness.”

The remarks of two of the conference speakers especially stood out.

David N. Field of Switzerland, another member of the Commission, offered two extensive lectures based on his book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity. Most dealt with Wesley’s views on unity, love, holiness and conflict.

As Field was speaking, the Beatle’s 1967 hit, “All you need is love” kept running through my mind. As Fields quoted from various sermons, he said Wesley fiercely condemned Roman Catholicism, but in another sermon, he praised fifteenth-century Catholic devotional writer Thomas á Kempis. A number of these allegedly contradictory sermons proved that Wesley was able to love those with whom he vigorously disagreed. Field also stressed the importance of conscience. He compared Wesley’s defiance of the Church of England’s hierarchy by preaching to the poor and working class in the fields to modern day violation of church law by performing same-sex weddings for conscience sake.

Field also had a lot to say about love as holiness. He said in second lecture that the church needed to be “a reconciling community because [Jesus] welcomed marginalized people to a transforming relationship with Christ.” He said in a Christian community boundaries “should be porous and fuzzy.” Field believes Wesley would not center the Methodist faith on doctrine or ethical standards. “The core is love God and other human beings,” he stated. “You cannot join our movement until you put down cultural artifacts,” in apparent reference to disapproval of same-sex unions. [Note: The author confirms this quote is in her notes but Field, in a comment below, disputes it came from him.  If anyone has audio or video of talk, we will gladly correct if needed.] At the end of his lecture, Fields received a standing ovation from the audience.

Michael Slaughter, former pastor of Ginghamsburg UMC, north of Cincinnati, Ohio, is, like Alexander, Baugham, Berlin, and Copeland, a part of this new group’s leadership team, and is personally close to another prominent leader of the group, Adam Hamilton, who was not present. Slaughter gave the opening address on the second day. In it he described his view of Scripture. He seemed to dismiss the Bible as our authority. “What is essential,” he declared, was “Jesus.”  “Jesus didn’t leave us a book, he left us a Counselor,” to interpret him to us. “Unity is based on one absolute—Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

If Scripture, accountability and two millennia of Church history can be dismissed, I guess “Love, Love, Love, all you need is love.” This seemed to be the theme of Uniting Methodists, especially in the context of LGBTQ full inclusion. Despite talk about loving those with whom we disagree, I saw little compassion for those supporting a Traditional position, no clear acknowledgement that revisionists do not have a monopoly on loving our neighbors in the LGBTQ community, and very few serious attempts to address hard questions of how breaking our promises and covenants with each other can be reconciled with shallow pleas for “love.”

One person commenting from the floor wondered if Traditionalists who had some sympathy for full LBGTQ inclusion could be included in the group so they could “grow” and be in agreement with the larger group.

It was not clear how this fit with the hymn we sang on the second day, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I wondered what the progressive attendees were thinking as they sang, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” The love Wesley spoke of in his sermons was sacrificial, based on the love Christ showed to us when he suffered and died on the Cross. I suspect Wesley would shake his head at talk of “fuzzy and porous” boundaries and removal of “accountability rules.” This was the man who instituted class meetings and bands as a form of mutual Christian accountability. It caused one to speculate: Can this kind of undefined love be construed as the theological foundation of Uniting Methodists?

  1. Comment by Scott on November 28, 2017 at 9:08 am

    Field states that we should allow full inclusion of the LGBTQ group because “Jesus welcomed marginalized people to a transforming relationship with Christ”. He needs to reread that statement. The key is that it is a transforming relationship with Christ. Christ’s love was to transform people away from sin, not accept it is ok. True “all we need is love”, but loving others and ourselves is to turn to God and away from sin. A “sinless theology is not sin, it is just another sad excuse for taking the narrow road and changing.

  2. Comment by Scott on November 28, 2017 at 9:09 am

    I misstated. I meant to say a “a sinless theology is not a theology at all”

  3. Comment by David N. Field on November 28, 2017 at 10:32 am

    It is interesting to read what someone else hears when you give a lecture. What he/she selects as the important points and what they miss. The summary of my two lectures appears to me to miss key aspects of what I said, to draw conclusions I did not draw and add statements I did not make. While I did not lecture from a full manuscript I am sure I did not say. “You cannot join our movement until you put down cultural artifacts.” I do not know what this means. The author seems to have missed that I had a section in my second lecture on the church as a community of mutual accountability. But to the main point – love. In my lectures I twice described what I mean by love which is far removed from the Beatles. This can be seen from the main points that I had on my PowerPoint
    Loving God
    Giving God the primary loyalty in all areas of our lives
    Making God’s agenda our agenda
    Obeying God’s commandments
    Living in constant fellowship with God
    Sharing your lives in all their complexity with God

    Love for our Neighbors
    Commitment to the comprehensive well-being of others
    To all people – friends, strangers, enemies, undeserving, enemies of God
    To pervade all dimensions of our lives
    Particular concern for those who suffering, rejected, despised

    In the second lecture I defined love as crusiform love – a love that demonstrated by God incarnate on the cross. This I described as: The cross reveals love that is faithful, costly, self-sacrificial, self-debasing
    My main points from the powerpoint are available on my Blogsite https://davidnfield.wordpress.com/

  4. Comment by Scott on November 28, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    David you say your point is to obey God’s commandments. I agree, does this mean that you agree that homosexuality is a sin and those that are need to give up their sin. This commandment is very explicit in the scriptures.

  5. Comment by Jim on November 28, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Matthew 16-
    24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?

    What will it profit a man or woman who gains their same sex partner in this world? Jesus offers another way, the way of sacrifice and denial in return for eternal life.

    The voices of “love” who disregard the clear and distinct words of scripture are those who as Jesus said are, “Many will come in my name.” Flee these false prophets and seek the holy, loving and eternal one. It is difficult, it is a sacrifice but, it is the high calling to be a disciple.

  6. Comment by David N. Field on November 29, 2017 at 2:54 am

    Scott, this is where we differ. I think that the passages gereally used to condemn homosexual relationships are open to a number of probable interpretations. While in some case I think the interpretation that they condemen all homosexual relationships is possible I think that there are legitimate ways of understanding the texts as only condemning specific homosexual relartionships. A detailed discussion of these texts lies beyond the scope if this reply. Therefore to me it is not clear that the bible condemns all homosexual relationships.

  7. Comment by Scott on November 29, 2017 at 9:19 am

    David the word Paul used arsenokoites was first used by him and it refers to a man (arseno) having intercourse as with a woman (koites). This directly mirrors the prohibition against homosexual relations found in Leviticus. The prohibition in Leviticus is very clear. Paul’s texts in Corinthians and Timothy give absolutely no evidence that it refers to rape or any other type of forced behavior. I get that people in later writings claim that it does, but Paul who was hand picked by Jesus to be his apostle never claims it is anything but agreement with Leviticus which reflected the historical Jewish attitude towards homosexuality. If you have any clear biblical evidence to the contrary where God now finds what he declared to be a sin no longer a sin, I would truly love to hear it. I do have an open mind.

  8. Comment by David N. Field on November 30, 2017 at 6:43 am

    Scott a good response would require more than I can write here. I will just indicate a few issues which I think suggest that the meaning is not as obvious as often claimed. A literal translation of the texts in Leviticus would read “Do not lie with a male the lyings (or the beds) of a woman/wife.” Reading the text in context it is addressed to adult (presumably married) males. If it simply said “Do not lie with a male” the meaning would be quite straight forward although given the context it could be argued only to apply to married men. However the lying with a male is qualified by “the lyings (or the beds) of a woman/wife” – there is considerable debate as to exactly what it means. It only occurs here in these two passages in Leviticus and its exact meaning is uncertain but clearly refers to some form of sexual activity. It is important to note three things. One, the Hebrew text does not have any words that are the equivalent of “as with” that we find in English translations. The original does not appear to making a comparison as suggested by the English translations. Second is the use of the Hebrew word for “male” in the first part is not paralleled with the equivalent for female but a different word meaning either wife or woman. Third is the use of the plural lyings or beds. There are a number of proposed translations of this phrase some scholars argue that it refers to penetration and thus other homoerotic are permitted, others note that the one occasion that that the word lyings/beds occurs in the OT relates to incest argue that it refers to homosexual incest, if the emphasis is on wife then it could refer to a married man having a relationship with another man. My argument here is not that the common translation is not possible but that there are other possible interpretations.

  9. Comment by David N. Field on November 30, 2017 at 6:44 am

    With regard to what “arsenokoitai” means. It is made up of two words arseno – male koitai – bed/lying plural is use metaphorically for illicit sexual affairs. There are a number of problems with translation – the major one is that Paul’s use of it in Corinthians is the first know use of the term, the second is that the reference here and most other references are in lists of sins with no context. Does it refer to having sex with a male, or possible a male who has illicit affairs. Some have proposed that Paul invented the word to refer male – male sexual relationships This is an argument from silence and are many possible reasons why we have not as yet found earlier uses of it. Working on the assumption that Paul invented the word others have argued that Paul’s use of the term comes from Leviticus where in the Greek translation both Arseno and Koitai are found – but they are not used as single word. Why they are next to each other in Leviticus 20 but here they do not belong to the same grammatical clause. While it is still possible that Paul invented the term based on Leviticus it seems unlikely that Paul writing to a predominantly Gentile audience would have made up a word based on a fairly obscure Old Testament passage when there were other adequate Greek words. There are two indicators that I think suggest another possible translation. The context is people treating others unjustly or wrongly. The second is that in one of the few texts that use “arsenokoitai” it is paralleled to adultery. In this case it would thus refer to a man who engages in sex with a married man – or possibly a married man who engages in sex with another man. In both cases there is a clear case of unjust behaviour that violates a marriage.

  10. Comment by Skipper on December 1, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    The bible is very clear on this. Don’t confuse yourself with many words. We don’t want to make up doctrine and invent a new religion, or else one could make themselves an enemy of God when we all need God’s protection. Try your best to honor God’s Plan of Created Order. Christian doctrine has been around for hundreds of years, with most over 1500 years old. I once wanted to review doctrine to see if it met my approval, but learned that we can please God my accepting it and moving ahead, putting it into practice. This way God becomes our Lord and He will be our Savior.

  11. Comment by Daniel on November 28, 2017 at 10:53 am

    Sermons must be easy for Michael Slaughter since he doesn’t have to use scripture for exegesis and can rely on his feelings for guidance. You are watching the redefining of formerly generally accepted terms to suit the “new thing” the spirit (probably not the Holy Spirit) is doing in and to the UMC. Ichabod is the word that comes to mind to describe this distressing situation.

  12. Comment by Eternity Matters on November 28, 2017 at 11:07 am

    “Despite promises of inclusion, not a single speaker at the meeting or any of the gathering organizers stood up for the Traditionalist position (the United Methodist Church’s official affirmation of orthodox Christian teaching on sexuality).”

    That says it all. Just a bunch of pro-abortion, pro-perversion pagans continuing their takeover of the UMC. The only question is whether the Christians will let them or if they will be wimps.

  13. Comment by William on November 28, 2017 at 4:33 pm

    Looks like a shining example of a meting of wolves in sheep’s clothing. From the summation of this gathering, incoherent, convoluted rhetoric seemed to be the lyrics to the tune of telling them what their itching ears wanted to hear. Straight out of the liberal playbook — use ambiguity, confusion, doubt, and deception to discredit God’s word for the purpose of uplifting man’s secular word for the purpose of displacing God’s word. Sounds like this meeting could have been most significant if many in attendance could have experienced a conversion (Justifying Grace) and the beginning of a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ (Sanctifying Grace). What a missed opportunity indeed.

  14. Comment by Teófilo de Jesús on November 29, 2017 at 7:03 am

    It’s always tragic for me to see how people destroy the Christian truth about human nature by name-calling and emotional appeals. They won’t stop “dialoguing” until they prevail. Those faithful to the Christian view of man, woman, and marriage should be ready to say “no more” and stick to Gospel principle.

  15. Comment by TexasBankerx on November 29, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    So very disappointed in Stan Copeland. Bill Hinson must be spinning in his grave.

  16. Comment by Roy on November 30, 2017 at 9:49 pm

    Actually I belong to the Free Methodist church and have held positions there. To my knowledge none of this ridiculous stuff has hit them. If I belonged to the UMC, I would run now. God’s word is SO clear.

  17. Comment by Gerry on December 1, 2017 at 1:37 am

    When it comes to understanding Lev 18 & 20 as well as Paul’s writings we have both declaration & practice of the Jews and then the Christians and it is in the practice we see clearly what the declarations mean. For the practice was the establishment of a general prohibition on Same-sex sexual partners not a special or limited prohibition on certain types of Same-sex sexual relations.

    To overlook the insight the practice gives to the declaration is a serious error.

  18. Comment by John Smith on December 1, 2017 at 6:30 am

    That progressive elders would find their churches progressive is hardly surprising. I would assume the elder has been instructing the church based on his theology. Most who disagreed would have already left the church.

    BTW, firmly believing that he who defines the terms controls the debate the “traditionalist” need to relabel themselves as the “scriptural” or “biblical” branch. The question is not about adhering to tradition and if those advocating the primacy of scripture are seen as merely defending a small subset of traditions they lose credibility.

  19. Comment by Lindy Magill on December 14, 2017 at 8:07 am

    Yes, you hit the nail right on the head…Scripture is the plumb line for all practice. I don’t need some convoluted parsing of grammar to tell me what is and isn’t God’s will. The Holy Spirit within me uses the Scripture to reveal God and how He has wanted humankind to live from Day One.

  20. Comment by Liza Kittle on December 1, 2017 at 8:08 am

    I wonder what Bill Hinson, who I believe was a prophetic voice for the church at General Conference 2004, would think of his mentee Stan Copeland’s views at this conference. This whole exercise in “shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic” is ridiculous. The split needs to commence!

  21. Comment by Scott on December 1, 2017 at 8:08 am

    I would like to thank David Fields for answering my question. I have asked many progressive groups for a biblical defense of their position and none have responded in the past. However I have to continue to disagree with David and I doubt we will ever agree. This is where the “experience, tradition, and reason” of the quadrilateral come in. David takes the scriptures and stretches and bends them to fit his viewpoint. If we had only the scriptures to rely on I might admit that he had the slightest remote possibility of being correct. However we also have the practice and traditions of the people who received the teachings of Leviticus millennium ago. In a society that was dominated by Greek and Roman practices where homosexuality was a common practice, the Jews were dead set against it, due to their understanding of the Law. If Jesus felt this was an injustice he would have said so and that would have been such a shocking claim that it surely would have been reported. Those who are claiming that the scriptures support homosexuality are banking on an obscure interpretation of the Bible verses the obvious one which is supported by over a continuous and unbroken belief of our faith history. If David’s interpretation of Leviticus is correct then God would have proscribed the death penalty for two men lying in bed together (but not necessarily for homosexuality). Before anyone gets too wound up about the death penalty part we all know that we are no longer bound by the Old Covenant but the New Covenant. To be clear I believe that we should treat gays as God’s children, welcome them into our worship, and treat them with love and respect. However, endorsing sin is not love, it simply the easy and popular way out. This is not the first time the church has stood in contrast with general society over homosexuality, yet it is the first time we have started to conform to society instead of maintaining our biblical beliefs and traditions.

  22. Comment by Penny on December 2, 2017 at 1:27 am

    Thank you, Scott, for your insightful comments and for supplying the impetus for more information from David Fields. His replies were pretty much along the line of “that depends upon what ‘is’ is”. I have been saying for many years that if Jesus had wanted to give more insight to us regarding the acceptance of homosexuality it would be in Scripture. Progressives insist that it is OK because Jesus didn’t say specifically not to do it. But Jesus did not comment, meaning that the Jewish law as it stood was correct. So it would follow that he would say to those in the lifestyle, “Neither do I condemn you – go and sin no more.”

  23. Comment by David N. Field on December 2, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Thanks Scott for the conversation – I hope to pick up some of this in more detail on my own blog page and can then respond in more detail.

  24. Comment by William on December 1, 2017 at 4:23 pm

    For the 40+ years of this conflict in the UMC, progressives have been unable to identify any Scripture that approves of homosexual sexual relations or same-sex marriage. Therefore, their only option is to attack Scripture that actually does condemn the practice of homosexuality and Scripture that states God’s created order for marriage as that between man and woman. They go to great lengths using conjecture, supposition, and ambiguity to create doubt and confusion, especially among those experiencing various degrees of Biblical illiteracy.

    Little noticed in this approach, should the progressive method for this argument be accepted, is that all sexual immorality sin would have to be re-evaluated — ALL sin eventually if taken to its logical conclusion. At that point, the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross would have to be revisited and revised.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.