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This is the second of two articles offering different perspectives on the new “Protocol” proposal to divide the United Methodist Church. You can read the first one here. Kenneth J. Collins is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and a professor at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Collins serves on the Board of Directors for the Institute on Religion & Democracy and on the advisory committee for the UM Action program.
The people called Methodists were raised up in the 18th century to “spread Scriptural holiness across the land.” John, Charles, and Susanna Wesley were all transformed in the deepest recesses of their heart, through humble repentance, in order that the holy love of Christ might shine in their hearts so that they could be a blessing to others, especially to the poor among them. Then as now there is no Methodism apart from holiness.
Consider what United Methodists are being asked to do under the proposed Protocol. It would hand over virtually all the levers of power to a party within the church that has refused to abide by the Discipline and that has rejected the clear teaching of Scripture, especially in terms of holiness. Then it would disempower those who have faithfully upheld the Discipline as well as the clear, ethical standards of Scripture continually in both their thoughts and actions. In fact, it would remove this last group out of the United Methodist Church altogether, and be done with it, and then give them simply money as some sort of consolation. What’s wrong with this picture?
For those traditionalists who complain that they are tired of this difficult struggle, just remember it took the church over a century to overcome Donatism. During the fourth and fifth centuries, it was in part the faithful, suffering witness of the orthodox, along with their courage and perseverance, that won the day. Maintaining an authentic, struggling witness over time, empowered and encouraged by no one less than the Holy Spirit, can bear remarkable fruit as the disobedient and wayward see the gracious witness of what holy love actually looks like in both its beauty and its power.
How can you then claim that you truly love your neighbors if you are unwilling (because you maintain that the cost is too high, the suffering too great), to call the recalcitrant to the same high end, which is fullness in Christ, that you desire for yourselves? How can you talk about your own suffering without ever once naming the suffering of Christ? Is your suffering greater than the Savior’s?
Reflect also on stewardship. The United Methodist Church exists today because the faithful from the past, from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twenties centuries, have bequeathed a sacred trust to those today who should be offering their unflagging witness to the beauty of Christ and to the richness of holiness. This gracious heritage must be cared for, not surrendered; cherished, not abandoned. In short, traditionalists have neither the right nor the authority to forsake the precious duties and binding obligations of stewardship, to break the sacred trust that was put in place by the faithful, suffering witness of others throughout the centuries.
The Protocol commends a supposed bright and sunny future in which the pain will stop and in which we will all be able to get on with “real ministry” as if bearing a faithful, suffering, and persevering witness to the truth of Jesus Christ, in the face of vigorous opposition, is not real ministry! We will be a different people on the other side of the support and execution of the Protocol than we were before, and not in a good way.
Think not simply on the present moment for the church. We must heed the voice of the past, of the faithful sons and daughters whose very sacrificial lives have been, and remain, a beautiful witness. Think also on eternity and that each one of us as the Apostle Paul has cautioned will stand before the judgment seat of Christ: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” 2 Corinthians 5:10 NIV.
In that glorious presence does anyone really what to confess that we ceded the United Methodist Church, with its emphasis on beauty and holiness, to radicals and revisionists, because we were tired or we had suffered so long? Would we then be like the unfaithful servant who buried his talent out of fear? One wonders.