Many of us are watching with sadness the emerging, seemingly inevitable, separation (however amicable) between the so-called progressives and the so-called conservatives in the United Methodist Church. By any read of the situation, the UMC of the 21st century stands in grave peril. It would be too simplistic to say that it is in peril because of the precipitous decline in membership, the challenge of redefining human sexuality, gridlocked leadership, budget woes, or the public defiance by some bishops of the Book of Discipline. Those are all symptoms of the real issue which is at stake.
The UMC is not fundamentally in a fight over homosexuality, or how to get the church to grow. Our basic struggle is not even over how to get the church to live together, or whether or not certain lines in the Book of Discipline should be enforced or not. Those are merely the presenting issues. We are in a fundamental struggle over the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the issue which is before us. Paul called Timothy to “preach the Word!” because a time is coming when “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3,4). This testimony is true about the UMC today. We are constantly being told that we have two factions in the church, both of which believe that they are being faithful and who sincerely hold certain positions which have been labeled “conservative” and “progressive.”
There are two main reasons why I do not like the term “progressive” to refer the faction within the UMC who are pushing for an ongoing re-imagining of the gospel, the debunking of biblical authority and a radical new morality in step with contemporary culture. First, the term “progressive” calls to mind the word “progress” and implicitly suggests that the “progressive” positions, if embraced, will move the church forward, rather than backward. Second, using the two terms “progressive” and “conservative” tends to portray the idea that we are roughly divided between two groups who are each the moral and ecclesiastical equivalent of the other. Therefore, (so the argument goes) we just need to find some creative way to make both groups happy. I have heard many UM leaders say, “Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we just agree to disagree?”
However, the two groups should never be called “conservative” and “progressive” and they should never be viewed as equivalent groups. What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox. I will be the first to concede that even orthodoxy in North America has become so weak and bland that is has become hardly recognizable. Likewise, I believe that many in the heterodox camp are driven by important “branches” of the gospel, even if they have lost touch with the Christian “root.” But, this should not confuse the deeper point I am trying to make.
The orthodox group stands with the Apostles, the prophets, the martyrs and the biblical witness as revealed in Scripture. The orthodox have the whole of the church throughout the ages standing with them. The orthodox are contending for the faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). The heterodox come and go with every generation. They rise up, make a big noise, cause a huge stir, and tell the church that we are no longer “relevant.” However, in just one generation the faith of the heterodox has withered away until the next challenge comes. We are now over 2,000 years into the Christian proclamation. The orthodox message is still here. In fact, from a global perspective, it is alive and well. It is robust and flourishing. The heterodox are sweeping in for another assault. We’ve endured the gnostics, the Arians, the Marcionites, the Montanists, the Pelagians, the Manicheans, the neo-liberals, the “prosperity” gospel, and the populistic reductionists, to name a few. But, take heart, in a generation this group will be long gone and orthodoxy will still be preaching the gospel, baptizing new believers, believing the Bible, worshipping the Triune God, planting new churches and looking for the return of Christ. So, be encouraged: Do not lose heart. Keep the faith. Keep Loving. Remember the Gospel. Preach the Word. This present storm will pass and the gospel will prevail.
I, for one, am going to stand with the Apostles.