It remains widely agreed that the United Methodist Church is clearly headed for a major split. The UMC will be replaced by two new denominations. Since it is in the future, we have limited data to show about the two new Methodist denominations. But they will be different.
A new traditionalist Methodist denomination will keep the UMC’s moral standards, including the bans on same-sex weddings and non-celibate gay clergy. The liberalized post-separation United Methodist Church (psUMC), as the preamble of the Protocol legislation makes very clear, will move quickly to overturn these policies in some way.
(While the emergence of a third denomination remains theoretically possible, I see little evidence of much movement to make this happen in any a statistically significant way.)
One liberal caucus has made a habit on social media of highlighting extreme statements or actions by various non-Methodist fundamentalists and suggesting, without evidence, that this is the bad, scary direction in which traditionalist United Methodists really want to go.
Beyond wild speculation and fear-mongering, and the basic point of allowing same-sex weddings or not, do we have any hard data for what to expect from the two new Methodist denominations, before the split even happens?
Actually, we do.
In recent years, United Methodist Communications (UMCom) has invaluably conducted two major, scientific surveys of people’s views in at least the American portion of our global denomination.
Their 2015 survey focused especially on controversies around sexual morality, after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly voted to redefine marriage in civil law to include some same-sex couples. We reported earlier on how the results showed American United Methodists to be much more evenly divided than sometimes thought, with even a slight traditionalist edge in some ways.
Say that 54 percent of American United Methodist pastors still support the banning same-sex unions for our churches, as in the 2015 survey. And let’s say the pastors who switch to the traditionalist denomination are overwhelmingly traditionalist, but account for as little as half of traditionalist pastors. Then among those left behind in the psUMC, only slightly over one-third of remaining American pastors in the psUMC would still support the traditionalist policy.
This would be a dramatic shift. Over time, we could expect the depleted traditionalist minority to shrink further.
But what shifts might occur in terms of people’s views on other issues?
In 2019, UMCom released the results of another survey of American United Methodists, focused on core theological questions. This time, the respondents were only laity “identified as members or regular attendees of a United Methodist church but with no formal leadership role.” While I find these limitations problematic, this category probably makes up all but a tiny minority of the people in our churches.
In a recent blog post, megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton attempts to rebut arguments by Good News Vice President Tom Lambrecht about the true “primary reasons for our separation.” Among other things, Hamilton tries to refute Lambrecht’s assertion that theological traditionalists view the Bible as our primary source of authority and that this sets us apart from more liberal factions. In true post-modern fashion, Hamilton largely bases his counter-argument on what he reports about people he personally knows.
But the 2019 survey offers a more objective basis for evaluation.
Contra Hamilton, UMCom found only 29 percent of American United Methodists affirming Scripture as “the most authoritative source of their personal theology,” and only six percent of those who describe their theological perspective as “progressive-liberal.” Meanwhile, a combined 45 percent of American United Methodists (including 72 percent of self-described progressive-liberals) view either “personal experience” or “reason, rationality” as their primary authority, greater than Scripture.
No one can confidently predict exactly how many United Methodists will end up in each new denomination. But a theology-based division will certainly result in much fewer than 29 percent of those in the psUMC viewing Scripture as their primary religious authority. Much fewer than 45 percent in the traditionalist denomination will view reason or personal experience as theirs.
The whole 2019 survey offers a fuller picture. Several other findings are worth highlighting.
Hamilton also takes issue with Lambrecht’s contrasting traditionalist United Methodists viewing making disciples of Jesus Christ as the church’s primary agenda to more liberal factions instead prioritizing social-justice crusades to transform the world. But the 2019 survey found precisely this divide. One question was: “Which should be the primary focus of The United Methodist Church?” Seventy percent of all respondents (including 88 percent of those describing their theological views as “Conservative-Traditional”) picked “Saving souls for Jesus Christ.” In contrast, a strong majority of 68 percent of progressive-liberals picked the alternative top priority of “Advocating for social justice to transform this world.”
Furthermore, 28 percent of all respondents and nearly half of self-described progressive-liberals believe that “There are ways to salvation that do not involve Jesus.” Eighty-six percent of self-described conservative-traditionalists affirmed what the survey offered as the contrary position that “The only way to salvation is through a relationship with Jesus.” Relatedly, while a 70-percent overall majority “believe in a literal hell,” 82 percent of conservative-traditionalists do, while only half of progressive-liberals do.
On the person of Jesus Christ, as many as 38 percent of respondents (including nearly half of self-described progressive-liberals) believe “Jesus committed sins like other people.”
An important caveat is to remember the survey’s exclusive focus on lay members and attenders in no leadership positions. Our churches must welcome seekers. We certainly should not require perfect orthodox beliefs before anyone can even attend our worship services.
But in the UMC, revisionist views of the most basic doctrinal questions have grown to such a high level, often with the encouragement of our seminaries and denominational officials, that we have lost unity of belief on the most foundational matters
The belief of so many United Methodists in the sinfulness in Jesus Christ may perhaps stem, in part, to this being taught by contested Mountain Sky Conference Bishop Karen Oliveto. Since then, she was promoted to become president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops. Yet within the world of liberal and so-called “centrist” caucuses, there appears to be no room whatsoever for any leader to say that Oliveto’s theological teachings have crossed a line, and that no one with such radical views should be a United Methodist bishop.
This is not an isolated case.
In a 2019 official article for the UMC’s Greater Northwest Area, Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference lay leader Jan Nelson encouraged a dismissive attitude toward the realities of Heaven and Hell, “if these places really exist.”
Just last month, an official UMC denominational agency went out of its way to promote the online ministry of a United Methodist minister who is apparently a big fan of John Shelby Spong, and who promotes a version of Christianity stripped of such basics as “faith in a God of supernatural intervention.”
In 2003, Chicago Bishop Joseph Sprague was let off with no more than a slap on the wrist after publicly repudiating core UMC doctrine, “dissent[ing] from Christocentric exclusives which hold that Jesus is the only way to God’s gift of salvation,” denying the virgin birth and miraculous physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and teaching that “Jesus simply did not preach, teach, or describe himself as [the Gospel according to] John suggests” (see here and here). Sprague’s denial’s of Christ’s virgin birth and actual resurrection were defended by South Carolina Bishop Lawrence J. McCleskey, and Sprague remains a retired bishop in good standing.
In a 2016 interview, when asked about Sprague’s denial of the resurrection, one bishop candidate in the North Central Jurisdiction awkwardly dodged answering directly whether or not she believed in the actual physical resurrection of Christ. This did not stop this candidate from receiving many votes, nor from later being promoted to another prominent position in our denominational bureaucracy.
In 2018, the Rev. Mark Holland, director of the liberal Mainstream UMC caucus, wrote of believing in Christ’s resurrection “metaphorically,” further saying, “The truth of the Gospel does not hinge on whether you and I read this literally or spiritually. Let’s just live into the mystery.”
Another major liberal caucus, the Reconciling Ministries Network, hosted a 2013 gathering in which one of their speakers encouraged forgetting about “seek[ing] to redeem all scriptural text,” and instead suggesting we should “just rip out and leave those biblical pages” we don’t like “for the wind and the rain to disintegrate them, and then start listening to the wind and the rain.” This is not terribly distinguishable from Hamilton’s own low view of biblical authority. As Hamilton has famously put it, with refreshing honesty, he believes that much of Scripture which he personally finds too challenging or offensive, such as certain passages related to homosexuality or God’s judgment, should be categorized in a “bucket” of scriptures which “that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.” So for Hamilton and his disciples, Scripture is not really the primary authority, but there is a more fundamental authority according to which they judge which parts of the Bible to accept or reject.
Our differing views on such core matters as the authority of Scripture and the person of Jesus Christ reflect very sincere, deeply held convictions by different United Methodists. But there is no constructive purpose in avoiding honest acknowledgement of these differences.
The data makes clear that we have very deep theological divisions in the “United” Methodist Church. And after our denomination divides into one more traditionalist and one more liberal denomination, we will find big differences on non-sexuality matters.
At the leadership level, the psUMC will keep the denominational officials who deny the resurrection of Christ, speak dismissively of the reality of Hell, and teach that Jesus had his own sins. The new traditionalist Methodist denomination will not.
A relatively greater portion of rank-and-file American members and attendees of the new traditionalist Methodist church will hold to a high view of biblical authority. They will have a relatively high degree of consensus in believing that the church’s primary mission (not its only mission) is saving souls for Jesus Christ, that salvation is found through Christ alone, and that a literal Hell exists. No more than a relatively small minority of the people in the pews will believe that Jesus committed sins like other people.
We can expect a different, much more divided picture among those in the American pews of the psUMC. Only a small minority, significantly less than 29 percent, will see Scripture as their primary religious authority. They will be close to evenly divided, at best, on whether or not Jesus Christ committed sins. There will at least be very large minorities, more than one-third of the total, who do not believe in a literal Hell, do believe that salvation can be found apart from Jesus Christ, and who want the church to focus on social-justice activism more than making disciples of Jesus Christ.
As conferences, congregations, and individuals make their choices between the two emerging Methodist denominations, these are important differences to consider.