February 4, 2019

Response to Bishop Lawrence McCleskey on Ordination and Connectionalism in the One Church Plan

UM Voices is a forum for different voices within the United Methodist Church on pressing issues of denominational concern. UM Voices contributors represent only themselves and not IRD/UMAction.

Joe Kilpatrick Sr., a retired CPA, is a lay member of Tucker First UMC and the North Georgia Conference, which has elected him a delegate to the General Conference since 1988. He is currently a Trustee of Asbury Theological Seminary, and formerly served as a director of The United Methodist Publishing House. He is on the Steering Committee of UM Action and the board of directors of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church. 

In this guest post, Joe responds to an article by retired Bishop Lawrence McCleskey defending the “One Church Plan” to change the UMC’s standards to allow partnered gay clergy and same-sex unions, an article which was distributed by the liberal “Uniting Methodists” caucus.


Bishop McCleskey gives a historical overview of Wesley’s 1784 transfer of power to a hundred preachers, the Legal Hundred, of the first Annual Conference. He talks about contextualization and leans heavily on “Our Theological Task.” He references our doctrinal heritage noting “sacred and historical” documents, including Scripture. He says, “Those standards are fixed.”

Bishop McCleskey shifts then to our theological heritage which he says is “fluid, ongoing and contextual.” He is contrasting this with the doctrinal heritage which is fixed.

Bishop McCleskey concludes by aligning ordination and marriage as matters of fluid theological reflection vs. the fixed doctrinal standards. He believes our ethical practice, ordination and marriage for example, can be treated with flexibility and diversity because they are distinguished from our identity. He believes our identity more closely hinges on the fixed doctrinal issues.

McCleskey believes the One Church Plan is best because we are not about rules and exclusion but about a connectionalism that will exemplify relationships, inclusion and grace.

I believe this is poor, poor thinking for the following reasons.

First, Bishop McCleskey presents our church history out of context. John Wesley was not about passing his powerful influence along to 100 preachers who would define relationships, inclusion and grace in the fluid “world.” Wesley was about preserving methods for holy and serious Christian life. The Conference was to appoint only those who would “preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament and four volumes of sermons.” The Quarterly meetings and the Conference were “under God a center of union to all our traveling…preachers.” Discussions of Doctrine dominated the discussions at meetings when there was controversy as with the antinomians (persons believing Christians are released by grace from observation of moral law.) Surely McCleskey knows that Wesley would never have placed Doctrine and moral standards second to fluid, ongoing, contextual matters in a fallen world. McCleskey is clearly thinking out-of-context.

Second, Bishop McCleskey’s academic inquiry has falsely defined connectionalism. He omits its essence, pastoral rule and care and the safeguarding of doctrine. The Conference exercised great authority in discipline and administration; the power of its officers flowed from the authority of the Conference. The local societies were the Connection written small, while the Conference was the Connection written large. They are not disjointed. Wesley and each conference pursed a single objective, promote scriptural holiness in personal life and in social relationships. The societies were open to all who desired to be saved from their sins. Continued membership required a manner of life consistent with the desire for salvation from sin. Free grace, offered through the “Connexion,” was available to all who desired to be saved from their sins. McCleskey is wrong to say we are not about rules and exclusion; the very essence of our connection, its membership and continued membership, required a focus on scriptural holiness, not on fluid theological reflection. Holiness was to be learned and practiced within a common, connected framework.

Third, Bishop McCleskey appears to corrupt Wesley’s understandings of scriptural holiness. Love and perfect love are deeply involved. Wesley’s sermon on The Character of a Methodist is instructive. It begins by calling attention to diverse opinions and asserting that Methodists believe that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God; and…this written Word of God is the only and the sufficient rule of Christian faith and practice. Wesley asserts that” a Methodist is one who has the Love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost…” Wesley says, “For as he loves God, so he keeps all his commandmentsWhatever God has forbidden he avoids…his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from which it flows. Wesley asserted that a Methodist of character will not “follow a multitude to do evil.” And finally, Wesley asserts that Methodists know that vice and worldly customs, however fashionable, “must not hinder their ‘running of the race set before us.” The actors at the Council of Jerusalem (Luke 15) became major writers of the New Testament and defined Christian ethics with their lists of virtues and vices for a diverse, pagan world. McCleskey wants to delete sinful practice named in scripture and bless those practices in ordination and marriage in Christ’s Church. This is not connectionalism. It is not love.

I believe and conclude that Bishop McCleskey’s flawed understandings, deviating badly from our history, policy, and doctrine, seriously threaten our union.


References: I have borrowed liberally from The Works of John Wesley, Volume 9, The Methodist Societies, History, Nature and Design; edited by Rupert E. Davis, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1989.

14 Responses to Response to Bishop Lawrence McCleskey on Ordination and Connectionalism in the One Church Plan

  1. David says:

    Well is Wesley to be taken seriously on all things? There is the case of his haunted house with a ghost, and I am not speaking of the holy one either. He was affectionately known as “Old Jeffrey” by the Wesley family. This manifestation would make all sorts of noises and scare the dog. Even in his own day, Wesley was held suspect for these tales.

    • Pudentiana says:

      Whatever David means here. It is the Scripture which is to be taken very seriously. If we trust in them to lead us into salvation, than we must take them seriously in our daily lives and deeds. Jesus said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. The basic tenets of the Christian faith are based upon the true love which Jesus showed us by sacrificially hanging on the cross that we might live eternally. Yes, he has paid for our sins, but we are called to honor his teachings which include the marriage of a man and a woman. It is not a “coincidence” that the Lord performed his first miracle at the Wedding at Cana. It is not a coincidence that the Bride of Christ is portrayed at the end of Revelation with the Lord welcoming those who follow the Lord’s teachings into heaven.”But outside are the dogs, the sorcerers, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”

  2. Rev. Margaret DeMaris says:

    What do we do as retired clergy in the face of such apostasy? I am ashamed of the Council of Bishops for not standing for doctrinal truth and Scriptural Holiness. JESUS come soon.

  3. Skipper says:

    We desperately need the Traditional Plan with exit provisions. Those who believe the Bible and want to be different from the world and those who do not believe the Bible can never get along. Strangely, our bishops promoting the “loose life” have no fear of God.

    • William says:

      It appears that these liberal bishops never experienced conversion, and, consequently, do not know Jesus. How they maneuvered their way to the top is a condemnation of our ordination system, not to mention those in charge of it. They espouse stuff that one might hear at a political convention or a social activists rally. Since they seem oblivious to Wesleyan prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace — they are unable to teach, preach, and witness it. Upon the arrival of a first year seminary student at a UMC seminary recently, he was greeted by his upperclassman with, “welcome to hell, these people here do not know Jesus”.

  4. Bill T says:

    What is amazing is that any history book about Wesley confirms your analysis. I appreciate your gentleness in your rebukes. I would love to see the other side as kind to us.

    I know the Bishop on the left of the picture who has never answered any of my direct questions on this issue but will redirect his answer just like a politician and you end up wondering what he is talking about. One thing that he let out of the bag, however, was not to a question but strategy at the Conference, which was to get a flood of speakers to elicit sympathy for the mistreatment of the LG community.
    That is reflected in the UMC Bishop’s justification for the OCP, that people are hurt by the traditional plan anw should be sympathetic to them. They want it to be an emotional issue.

    Actually, the only “hurt” of the traditional plan is no gay marriage by UMC clergy and no practicing LG Clergy. Otherwise the current UMC is open to all. They are accepted. But the LG want affirmation and a negation of scripture. That is the actual issue.

    • William says:

      If the LGBT movement was able to convince the entire denomination that the Bible is WRONG regarding the sinful practice of sexual immorality, specifically homosexuality, and that the Bible is WRONG regarding God’s created order for marriage as only that between a man and a woman — would this, in turn, change God’s mind or simply make the entire denomination WRONG? In other words, can God be voted out of office with a sufficient amount of numbers?

      • Dale says:

        This has already happened, to an extent. The pastor of the UMC congregation has signaled that the world has voted LGBT and it’s high-time we move with it.

      • Richard Bell says:

        I can convince you that the denomination has been WRONG about the Bible. I can prove to you, in accordance with traditional methods of scriptural interpretation, that God wills the Church celebrate homosexual marriages just as the Church celebrates heterosexual marriages. Ask me, a fellow conservative evangelical, for a copy of my essay by email: rsbell@ameritech.net

    • Scott says:

      Bill, the bishop on the left, Suda of New England, stopped all prosecution of pastors who perform gay weddings or come out as gay. In doing so he turned his back on honoring his vows to enforce the book of discipline. That should tell you all you need to know. An honorable man should either follow the rules or quit the organization. Like so many others he has an agenda, which is why we have come to this point.

  5. Skipper says:

    It’s quite a lie to say sexual perversion is not immoral or evil, but here we have all these bishops who do not believe the Bible is God’s Word. The Traditional Plan seems to be our last chance. Pray that is passes!

  6. Rev. Dr. Lee D. Cary (ret.) says:

    “Bishop McCleskey concludes by aligning ordination and marriage as matters of fluid theological reflection vs. the fixed doctrinal standards.” Okay – got it.

    I recently asked, via email, the Rev. Dr. Maidstone Mulenga, Director of Communications, Council of Bishops, the UMC this question: “If, under the One Church Plan, three people ask an ordained UMC pastor to preside over a covenantal marriage ceremony wherein the union of holy matrimony – not licensed by, nor seeking to be licensed by, any civil governmental entity – unites together one bisexual (B) female, one lesbian (L) female and one heterosexual male in holy matrimony, would that violate any provision of the currently proposed One Church Plan?”

    The response: “The question you raised about the One Church Plan is hypothetic since the plan has not been approved by the General Conference, which will meet in St. Louis, from February 23-26. The One Church Plan, The Traditional Plan and The Connectional Conference Plan have been submitted to the General Conference and it is that body that will decide.”

    Hypothetical. Right. Like, say, one of those “matters of fluid theological reflection vs. the fixed doctrinal standards.” Or, in the words of Bob Dylan, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.”

  7. Bruce Willis says:

    John Wesley once said”give me one hundred preachers be they lay or clergy who fear sin and love God, with these I will rattle the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of God on Earth”.
    Sadly the council of bishops have not rattled those gates for decades.
    They are in fact living in the shadow of them and are very comfortable being there. Now they want the rest of us to join them. The ocp is a plan to protect the institution of the umc which means preserving their power but mostly it’s about preserving the money.
    I.e. their large salaries and retirement.
    Money in and of itself is not evil.
    The love of money is the root of all evil.
    As a former pastor in the UMC from what I’ve seen heard and experienced this ocp is about money pure and simple.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *