Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in the United Methodist Church

Monday, May 5th, 2014

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.

Comments

  • Well, if the choices are with or against the Apostles, I also stand with the Apostles.

  • Paul Lawler says:

    I am in complete agreement that our division in the UMC is far deeper than the current expressions of defying of our ecclesiology and the reformulating of human sexuality; it is ultimately a deep divide rooted in how we view Christology, Biblical authority, and the Apostolic faith. Thank you for this excellent post!

  • DMB says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and encouraging article. I’m someone who has experienced a change in my sexual orientation through Jesus – the gospel of repentance and redemption through Him is true.
    We need the church’s support and continued discipleship, prayer and teaching of His word – and I pray the UMC in the USA will not abandon those of us who seek to follow Christ.

  • “With the apostles” and the whole history if the church conveniently overlooks and brushes every debate resolved snd schism completed and pretends we were of one mand right up
    Until the current debate. Nice linguistic trick. Presuming the author realizes that “the apostles” didn’t ordain women… But hey – nothing changes! I rather think the very Spirit that led the apostles to so radically reconfigure their own tradition is still working, even today, even within and beyond our various factions and grandiose self-delusions.

  • Jay says:

    Amen! I too want to stand with those that have gone before me. The ONLY thing I care to hear is “well done, good and faithful servant”…that’s all that matters.
    I enjoyed talking with you at Continuum, thank you for taking the time to talk with and encourage me.

    Blessings

    Jay

  • GaryBT says:

    Your bias showed right from the top: only “orthodox” was right. Yet for 1850 years “orthodox” approved slavery. For 1950 years “orthodox” said no women as preachers. For 1900+ years “orthodox” said that divorced and remarried clergy could no longer pastor a church. John Wesley thought that the Americans should not go against the God-ordained King of England. So how far back should the “orthodox” of the UMC go back? Is orthodoxy always correct? (Also, why, to this point, have no women commented?)

    • Aybido says:

      GaryBT. It looks like the church is making progress. After LGBT affirmation, what would you see as the next frontier or challenge we need to make to orthodoxy?

  • Duane Anders says:

    I stand with Jesus and disagree with your writings.

    • Joe says:

      Great way to prove the point, Duane. “Jesus over-and-against His church” is a favorite meme of the heterodox.

      God save us all.

  • Mary Page says:

    So is the UMC so weak in faith it cannot stand diversity? As laity I do not see it as a separation. I see a transformation going on. Those of us more on the conservative side and those on the progressive and everyone in between young and old. I do agree the issues are much deeper and manifest in the list you gave. I think it is more we do not know how to help the transition and transformation this time because it is so different and the needs are so different for the younger generations. The divorce rate in the Baby Boomer generation was 60 percent even in churches so the generation that followed cannot even come close to traditional orthodoxy though they try. I think we forget they come out of an entirely different experience. The next generation we sent to war for 10 years. Both things that would cause one to question deeply tradition and orthodoxy. I find it interesting the decline in mainline denomination occurred as the divorce rate went up. Church is a family. If the individual families are sick then the church family as a whole would be. Sixty percent is a large number. It takes a long time for individuals to truly heal from broken homes so it would take the church a long time to recover as well. Just as broken families are not the same and function differently so too would the church family. Maybe the issue is not orthodoxy. Maybe the issue is how to live as family when we are so broken and diverse. We followed the orthodoxy rules and it broke anyway because of strong outside negative forces. How do you heal the broken when it is the larger church family or how do you prevent the shattering from happening. How do you meet the needs of a generation that was broken by their parents when they were but children? How do you meet the needs of a generation sent to war for 10 years and endured a Great Recession in their prime? What is it they need to hear from us, feel from us, to know they are loved and acceptable just the way they are even if it is something we do not understand? Jesus was good at treating the outcast, the whore, the leper as if they were not broken and were acceptable. So how do we talk like that so they come and sit with us even when we do not agree? Hmmm When do we start talking to each other like that? Just asking.

  • Terry Powell says:

    I agree with Dr Tennent, the American church seeks to cajole unbelievers into salvation. When did Christians start being satisfied with just being “saved” ,just getting you foot in the door, and not being what God has called us to, a holy people that do the works God has prepared in advance? The Gospel is so much more than getting into heaven after you die.

    • Jeff Allen says:

      I agree with everything you said in this article, except that this current assault will not just go away. It’s only going to get much worse if something doesn’t happen. At the RMN’s ChurchQuake gathering (last Labor Day), they advocated for polygamy, promiscuity, prostitution, transvestitism, transgenderism…total sexual anarchy.

      • Would you please give documentation for this statement: “At the RMN’s ChurchQuake gathering (last Labor Day), they advocated for polygamy, promiscuity, prostitution, transvestitism, transgenderism…total sexual anarchy.” No progressive I know supports such things, but call for an equal standard of sexual morality across the board: chastity in singleness, fidelity in marriage.

  • I disagree with the general premise of this post. Not all who advocate for full inclusion of LGBT persons are theologically “progressive” (witness the recent release of “God and The Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines, a conservative upholding the authority of Scripture.) It has become very popular to say taht the current divide is about different views of Scripture (high vs. low.) I believe that is a smokescreen. The current divide is truly about differing beliefs on how non-heterosexual and transgender persons fit into the part of God’s realm that is the UMC. The last paragraph of this post stunned me with its lack of foresight: “In one generation this group [those working for full LGBT inclusion] will be gone”. In truth, those resisting full inclusion of LGBT persons will be gone. The coming generation will increasingly see LGBT Christians as full participants in the life of the church who bear good fruit for the Gospel.

  • F Franck says:

    Jesus did not teach acceptance of everyone and everything, thought ALL have the opportunity to be a part of the Kingdom. Once you start to bend the rules, where do you stop? I think we become the church of the deceased comic Flip Wilson; The Church Of What’s Happening Now. I don’t believe there is any question but that the Methodist church will be torn apart by the issue of homosexuality. For those pushing in that direction my question is “What’s next?” Will it be that sex between men and boys is not such a bad thing?

  • Would that Dr. Tennent had the same passion for Jesus’ commandment, “Love your neighbor” as he has for the orthodox constructions of Christianity that arose some centuries after the New Testament was written. Or perhaps Jesus came merely to establish a new set of laws, a rigid orthodoxy not unlike that of the Jewish elders of his day. Are the Apostles with whom Dr. Tennent stands those whom Paul had such a hard time convincing to follow the Gospel of freedom, the ones who believed the Gentiles must first obey Jewish orthodoxy before they could be included in the church? Sadly, the heterodoxy of the New Testament church presents some unfortunate examples of legalism and exclusion.

    If Dr. Tennent should continue to be responsible for training men and women to serve as preachers of the Gospel, however, let it be the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which encompasses all commandments (and all orthodoxy) into two simple rules — love God and neighbor. As he criticizes “progressives” in whatever name he chooses to call us, let him criticize us based on whether we are fulfilling these rules, and these alone.

  • Janet Orosz says:

    From what I can see, as “Progressives” oops, heterodox more and more dominate Methodism and use it as a Marxist political tool, wasting our tithe money furthering the agenda of their true father, the father of lies, the Methodist Church is essentially in the process of committing suicide. Every political victory of the heterodox means the Methodist membership shrinks as the believers move to more faithful community or home churches. I doubt that Jesus and the scriptures enter into heterodox minds except, secondarily, when they need to pull verses out of context to use as weapons against Truth, just like Satan in the wilderness. As their prophet and demi-god Saul Alinsky blatantly and clearly told them to always remember–the issue is never the issue, the issue is always the revolution. How can the Orthodox and heterodox within the Denomination coexist and work out their differences when they share no common goals, a factor necessary for working through conflicts; indeed, we serve two different masters and answer to two different authorities. We grow more and more into warring factions moving on divergent paths, while the Orthodox are concerned with scriptural integrity and advancing the Great Commission, the Heterodox are concerned with advancing the Marxist political agenda by any and all means. Granted there are truly good, sincere, and compassionate heterodox, the highly deceived ones. I used to be one of those until God in His grace kindly removed the scales from my eyes. Thank you, My Gracious Lord, for saving me from bondage to the lies and Machiavellian machinations of Marxists in Christian clothing.

  • marc says:

    I have enjoyed your lectures on Islam and Hinduism and on the various other subjects which you excel in.
    But is it not time to cross the Tiber? Protestantism is so fragmented today; many of the ‘heterodoxies’ eventually move on from the authority of scripture, surrendering to a less than divine Jesus and a less than divinely ordered view on sexuality.
    Listen to the highly respected Pastor Ulf Ekman’s own heartfelt concerns about where Protestantism has led numerous conservative churches today. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6uD34OfvkU

  • Barry says:

    This is so true. Many new believers are shocked when they hear what is going on in the leadership of our denomination. I fear that we are heading down the road of the Episcopal church.

  • Guy says:

    Question (that in no way is meant to undermine this post, but is asked by someone wrestling with the future implications of the situation we’re in): If things grow worse, is complete separation the only faithful option? Should those in the orthodox camp be the ones to initiate it? Would it be unfaithful, even for one in the orthodox camp, to stay with the others? I don’t ask this because I would advocate a split, but because I grow uneasy when folks on both sides seem so adamant that that’s the only option.

  • MRJ says:

    Very interesting article, Mr Tennent. I appreciate your eagerness to keep as strong a link as possible to the Apostles, the prophets, and the martyrs, in trying to live out the most authentic witness to the gospel that you can. And I appreciate your rejection of modern-day heterodoxy as being rooted in nothing other than the currents of the day. But I have to ask, wasn’t Methodism as a whole itself a form of heterodoxy one day not so long ago? If rejecting heterodoxy and embracing orthodoxy is the goal, wouldn’t the logical endpoint of that quest (as a faithful Christian) be a return to Rome? The Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality (and a variety of other topics) reflect, if anything, an ever-deepening understanding of the human heart as created by God, and tend not to be uprooted by whatever currents of the day may hold sway in society as a whole.

  • DW says:

    As someone looking into joining the Methodist Church, this debate gives great pause. First, if you believe the Bible, then it is clear that the practice of Homosexuality is incompatible with scripture. Period. It doesn’t mean that we hate the sinner, because Jesus died to save all of us from our sins. However, for the church, any church, to discount the teachings of the Bible and Jesus, where it says a man shall cling to his wife and they shall become one flesh, therefore what has God has joined let no man put asunder, is plainly wrong. Thank you for this commentary and speaking for truth.

  • Michael says:

    You are actually too kind…technically, the opposite of “orthodoxy” is “heresy”…but even PC has booby trapped THAT factual semantic. There are those that insist that “new ideas” are the new ideal…but when it comes to doctrine…that leads to “heresy”. It is best to let heretics part and leave…in the old days, we would have at LEAST formally tossed them from the fellowship…alas, today, the church in general, does not have the conviction to stand for what it believes in.

  • [...] Tennent argues that we have in the United Methodist Church two groups: What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic [...]

  • Well said, Dr. Tennent! What is at stake is the heart and core of the Gospel, and the authority of Scripture itself. Sadly, the sooner separation happens the better. Time to move beyond this 40 year war, and get on with Kingdom business.

  • Rod says:

    I agree with DW on the May 6th comment. The homosexuality issue is the Great Divide and is more frequently alluded to by the Methodist pastors as a way to “soften up” the congregations and to imply how unfair it is not to allow loving couples to marry? After gay marriage is the law of the land (soon) then why not bisexuals, polygamy, etc.? After all, can’t they be loving, too? This is just one of several “slippery slopes” that Methodism is embracing. I am waiting for a Book of Discipline change to decide whether to “walk” toward a more Bible-believing church that does not just “go along to get along”.

  • I was hopeful of a “fresh word” when I started reading this blog post, but I think you missed the opportunity to say that the two groups who are driving the debate are both (in their own way) failing to be faithful to Paul’s charge to Timothy, and are both “accumulat[ing] for themselves teachers to suit their own passions,” rather than preaching the radical gospel of Jesus Christ. That calls on the rest of us who take seriously the call to “preach the Word” to find a way forward that is true to the faith and doctrine “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

  • Camila says:

    Hi,
    There is an old video that is becomming very popular in Brazil about the Beth Thomas case. Were you and your wife the first adopted parents of her? Do you have any book talking about your experience?

  • gofishn2day says:

    I remember reading a statement by John Wesley that went like this, “We may not all believe alike, but we can love alike.” While this has been a subject I have struggled with personally and admittedly I do not have a complete answer, I have known many LGBTQ that have fruits of following Christ, often more than me. Recently I was at a conference representing young and old when a similar debate rose up. One of the Millennial generation leaders stood up and made a statement that most of those in their generation are already past the discussion and allowing them to be seen in the light of a child, created in the image of God, no different from any of us. What I took away from that and other discussions I have been a part of is that it is not up to me to judge them by anything other than the fruit they bear, if I judge them at all.

    Shalom, May God help us all!!

  • [...] 'small',}In a recent blog post, Asbury Theological Seminary president Timothy Tennent claimed that the real dividing line in [...]

  • Phil says:

    I’m sorry I just don’t get it. I read the Old Testament (without the Apocrypha) and the New Testament with four Gospels, Acts, 13 Pauline Epistles, 8 additional epistles, and Revelation. I recognize and affirm the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon and the doctrines affirmed in each one. I believe in sola gratia, sola fides, and sola scriptura. I believe in prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace, and affirm all 25 Articles of Religion in the BOD (do most Methodists even know they exist?). I have not as far as I can tell intentionally ignored or rejected part of the Christian canon, though I will confess to having mixed feelings about a few choice verses in Hosea. Of the texts often cited by the “orthodox” as you call them speaking against homosexual behavior of some kind, I acknowledge three: Leviticus 18, Leviticus 20, and Romans 1. Of these I interpret the two from Leviticus to be dealing with prohibitions contingent on the OT purity codes and not applicable to Christians. As to Romans, I affirm Paul’s judgment that persons who engage in homosexual behavior “against their nature” and without respect for God are sinning against God, but I also believe that the absence of these two conditions would remove the offense, therefore I hold that persons of a homosexual orientation who wish to pursue committed relationships under the marriage covenant of God would not fall under this condemnation. Tell me I’m wrong, tell I have a poor hermeneutic or misread the text, but don’t tell me I ignore it or refuse to be affirm it when my own conscience tell me I have. You made charges without citing evidence. You think because of this one issue and how you interpret a few texts in scripture differently from me, you have the right to call me a heretic and yourself orthodox? I don’t take it personally. There are I’m sure plenty of people who consider us both heretics because we’re ok with baptizing babies or think women can be pastors or refuse to acknowledge the Pope as Christ’s one and only representative on earth. The difference is that when these people call me a heretic they usually cite the words of some council or creed to support their argument. But not you. You didn’t cite scripture, councils, or any kind of creed. You assumed that your word alone was enough without any further evidence or need for debate. You’re going to have to do better than that.

  • [...] has been filled with responses to Asbury Seminary president Tim Tennent’s recent post titled Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy. In this post Dr. Tennent suggests that the ultimate division in the United Methodist Church lies [...]

  • [...] in the only way available to me. Given the recent conversations in the methoblogosphere about orthodoxy, this conversation will likewise serve as my entry into [...]

  • [...] Read More Related Posts:7 Marks of a False TeacherUnited Methodists to debate allowing gay clergy and same-sexThe Top Five Lies Christians BelieveDestroy a Church in 4 Simple StepsUnited Methodists Wearing A Millennial Evangelical Face 2014 Matching Funds Campaign [...]

  • AWN says:

    Janet sounds a lot like the Publican to me…

  • Mark says:

    I think you are on pretty much right on, Tim.

    We seem to have reached the point today that the simple act of disagreeing with someone—especially if you offer proof of their error—is considered hateful (or according to Mr. Guyton’s lights, “heretical”). Guyton’s long rebuttal, which I am sure you’ve read, reads like a postmodernist manifesto. I give him credit for creativity, as well as for bringing up valid points, but his Christian “symphony” has all the harmony of a John Cage composition.

    If you allow me to redefine terms, or use obscure definitions of them, I can “prove” just about anything. This is why Guyton’s “rebuttal” cannot be taken seriously.

    By Guyton’s definition Christ Himself, as well as Paul, were both heretics. Standing for doctrinal positions as taught and exemplified by Christ Himself may, in many contexts, be divisive, but cannot reasonably be construed as “heretical” based on a holistic view of Scripture.

    Suggesting that Paul was more concerned with divisiveness than the “incorrectness” of a heretic’s view takes him out of context, thereby missing the forest for the trees and failing to appreciate the reason(s) for the division.

    I think you gets it about right when when you say the real conflict is between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. If the failing UMC leadership upheld orthodoxy then there would be no substantial arguments over sexuality.

    • John says:

      But he’s failed to provide evidence anywhere in the blog that either his position is orthodox or his opponents’ is heretical. No scripture, no references to councils or creeds, no appeals to reason or natural law. He’s basically telling his readers that he likes these terms better than those terms in the debate over marriage and expects everyone to just go with it cause he says. He’s a seminary president. He should know better.

      • Mark says:

        Tennent didn’t cite Scripture? Did you miss the citations of Timothy and Jude?

        The thrust of what Tennent said is, indeed, supported by Scripture, natural law and a close reading of current events. Guyton cited Scripture and then proceeded to interpret it in an extreme or illogical way.

        • John says:

          Mark,

          He didn’t use them to actually argue his point that his opponents are heretics. He basically cited a couple verses that to say heretics exist. Ok, but he made no argument from the scripture as to why what his opponents are preaching is heresy. Nor has he actually cited scripture to defend his own beliefs. Nor has demonstrated that what he is preaching is in fact holding with tradition. It’s just poor work for someone in his position as a seminary president.

          • Mark says:

            John,
            Tennent never used the word “heresy” or “heretic.” You may be confusing Tennent with Guyton. Tennent used the term “heterodox” to describe those who are straying from Scriptural understandings that have historically been considered settled. He never called them heretics, which would imply a more radical form of heterodoxy. Tennent did not support all of his points with Scripture, but, as I suggested earlier, he didn’t have to since the thrust of what he said is Scriptural…and reasonable.

  • Sandy Wylie says:

    “We are the true (orthodox) believers who have all the right answers. The rest of the human race is wrong.” Where else have we heard this in the history of religion? Is dialogue with such people possible? I didn’t think so.

  • Russ says:

    I think fundamentalism will “win” in every religion, because it is simpler and more stable. The progressives are always arguing for nuance, complexity, change… That seldom appeals to majorities. Progressives will be driven out of the church or remove themselves eventually.

  • Many martyrs have died and continue to die for the orthodox Christian faith. No one has ever died for the progressive gospel.

    In Christ,

    The enemy hates clarity

  • Scott says:

    I have read the article and appreciated much about it. I do wonder if you believe in the inerrancy if Scripture?

  • Joy C says:

    Tim, It is always refreshing and nourishing to read your posts. God bless you.

  • [...] by pretty well all of Evangelicalism, i.e., those who see themselves as orthodox in belief.   Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Seminary and a spokesperson for the Good News/evangelical portion of the UMC, [...]

  • [...] Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in the United Methodist Church - by Tim Tennant [...]

  • [...] the Gospel’s essence itself. Recently, Timothy Tennett wrote about this in regard to the recent epidemic in the United Methodist Church. The UMC is not in a struggle over homosexuality, church decline, or discipline enforcement; [...]

  • [...] read with interest Dr. Timothy Tennent’s blog post, “Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in the United Methodist Church.” This post is helpful because it demonstrates that our disagreement in the UMC is not simply [...]

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