A Way Forward? My Response Part 7: The Way Forward. Let’s Not Divide, Let’s Multiply!

Monday, June 16th, 2014

This is the seventh and final part in a blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church

Is There a Way Forward?

We now come to the time for proposing positive, alternative solutions.

First, we must begin with the realization that we cannot legislate our way to unity and peace. This is a deeply spiritual and theological crisis, not a technical and legal one. I believe that every side of this divide will agree on the following three statements:

(1) Our communion has been impaired and our public witness is confusing to the world.
(2) Our ministerial covenant has been broken and the open defiance of the current Discipline will only get worse.
(3) The United Methodist Church is in a state of crisis which is clearly impeding our capacity and effectiveness in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Whatever proposals are finally “put on the table” must begin by calling all Methodists to a time of prayer and fasting for His divine guidance. We need clear guidance between now and 2016 so that decisions can be made at General Conference which, however difficult, will bring us to a new place as the “people called Methodists.”

Although these blogs have focused on various biblical, theological and ethical difficulties with the Hamilton proposal, we should not forget that one of the great problems with this or any solution like it has little to do with theology or Christian history; it is the challenge of brand identity. We currently have a church situation where a seeker walking through the doors of a United Methodist Church can experience dramatic contrasts. A church must have a known and trusted identity. This is a problem for both the progressives and the conservatives. The progressives would be “held back” by the conservatives who continue to fight for traditional values. Likewise, the conservatives do not have the space to create a brand identity for historic orthodoxy because of the dominance of progressive voices throughout the country and because the appointment system does not guarantee that a pastor with particular theological commitments will always be sent to a church with those same theological values.

I am not currently prepared to endorse any particular “way forward.” I think a proposal should arise out of holy conferencing before a clear avenue for action is made clear. I do think that Adam Hamilton is entirely correct in his observation that separating the church would have grave consequences. Could we really avoid the nasty and expensive lawsuits which have plagued the Presbyterians and the Episcopalians? Can any divorce of Christians be amicable? Would both groups be glad this took place 100 years from now? I do not know the answers to these questions. It may be that some form of amicable separation is what ends up happening. However, I would like to put on the table an alternative idea based on multiplication rather than division.

Possible Solution: Multiply, not Divide

One possible pathway which avoids separation would be to multiple, not divide. Under this scheme, the United Methodist Church would remain as the single title of the corporation. All pensions and general church land and buildings would be owned by the United Methodist Church. The church, in that sense, remains united. It would not only be structural, but the United Methodist Church as a whole would still be bound together by the General Rules, Wesley’s Articles, his Notes on the New Testament and his 52 canonical sermons. However, the denomination would oversee two separate Methodist movements which are under two separate Disciplines. The first would be known as the Methodist Church or the Progressive Methodists, or whatever name the progressives deem appropriate. This movement would be permitted to endorse progressive ideas and to freely change the Discipline in whatever way they believed was best for the sake of the mission of the church and evangelizing the society, as long as the change could be justified to be consistent with the founding principles of Methodism. The second movement would be designated by a distinctive name (words like orthodox, confessing, historic, and evangelical have been suggested). Whatever this Methodist movement is called, the important point is that it would retain historic Christian values and be committed to an historic understanding of orthodoxy, fully embracing the great themes of Wesleyan Christianity (universally accessible atonement, prevenient grace, entire sanctification, holy living, discipleship, and so forth).

Each of these two “arms” of the United Methodist Church would then convene key clergy and lay leaders who have been active on both sides of this struggle to write up a basic manifesto of the core values and guiding theological, cultural and missional principles which would form the fresh expression. This would not, necessarily, become part of the future Discipline of each branch, but would serve as a popular document which lay and clergy alike could read and understand. A year of conversation, reflection and prayer would allow time for each church to prepare for the vote and for the necessary judicial changes to be made so that two Disciplines could be enacted. On a set Sunday across the country (this would have a huge PR affect in the national media) every church would vote as to which expression they would identify with. Since there would be no “default” church, but two new expressions, a majority vote would have to be utilized to determine the new alignment. The members who were disappointed in the outcome of the vote in their particular church would be encouraged to align themselves with the alternative expression. Each Bishop on the current council would also be asked to align themselves with one or the other expressions of the church. All current ordained pastors would remain members of the United Methodist church (for pension purposes), but would be asked to align themselves with one of the branches (for appointment purposes). This does mean that in some cases two bishops living in the same geographic area would be providing episcopal oversight for each of the different expressions of the church. The apportionment system would be dramatically revised, focusing more on global ministry, local church initiatives and a mandatory episcopacy support fund. This could lead, over time, to whatever cooperative structures would best serve the church, including, potentially, certain structures which would effectively serve both branches of the United Methodist Church. District Superintendents would be senior pastors who would focus more on mentoring younger pastors, encouraging evangelism and overseeing catechesis and discipleship initiatives. The two Councils of Bishops (conservative and progressive) would function independently, but would be given greater authority over their respective branches than in the current structure. Both bodies, the Methodist Church and the Confessing Methodist church would be members of the World Methodist Council and both would participate in the World Methodist Conference.

Conclusion

There are pros and cons to this approach. Perhaps there are more cons than pros. But, in my hopeful moments, I believe this “multiplication” plan could also unleash a vigorous new wave of evangelism and church planting such that the membership losses of the last fifty years could be completely reversed in only 25 years. We must get re-focused on mission and evangelism! But the daylight is almost gone, night is at hand. Something must be done. We cannot keep pretending that our current covenant is holding. It is time for some bold action. Our Wesleyan heritage is too precious to keep traveling down the road of the status quo. If the truth were told, almost all of our churches (on both sides of the divide) have largely relinquished a clear exposition of Wesleyan distinctives. In addition, we have already experienced the “quiet schism” of millions of members who have left our beloved church. It is time for a true Wesleyan renewal to begin in the United Methodist Church. Let us pray, fast and commit ourselves to God and then, in true Wesleyan fashion, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work and, by God’s grace, forge a new future for our great movement.

Comments

  • Jim says:

    Dr. Tennent, I appreciate your optimism but I’d venture to say you are multiplying with fractions. 🙂 You still have a house divided against itself. Fun job for those working at the Corporate level, serving one side you vehemently disagree with and the other side you embrace. As you said in an earlier post, the dividing lines are not always clear either. It is a sad and very difficult situation; it sounds like those seeking a way forward are each traveling somewhere along the Grief Cycle.

  • Dale Durnell says:

    Just a nagging question in the back of my mind — you suggest a vote “On a set Sunday across the country.” Does not this vote need to extend around the world since we are a global denomination? What about UMC congregations in the Central Conferences? Which means that to even approve “A Way Forward” or your proposed alternative plan needs to be approved at General Conference which includes a (substantial) voting block from the Central Conferences. Just a thought.
    BTW — I do, very much, appreciate your thorough response to the original document — there’s lot to mull over and ruminate on.

  • Mark S. says:

    Of the proposals I’ve seen this is probably the most workable, and I applaud you for trying to make lemonade out of lemons, but it still attempts to “unite” those who have fundamentally different ideas.

    Thus, what about the funding of entities like the General Board of Church and Society, which is little more than a left-wing lobbying agency? Would the orthodox Methodists have the option of defunding such entities? How would a parishioner know which church he was visiting? Would there be some kind of mandatory designation (signage, etc.)?

    I think this is still playing on the playing field of liberals since it obviously capitulates to departure from the Discipline, which all UM churches supposedly uphold. I do appreciate your desire to hold us together, however, by coming up with a proposal that is certainly less contradictory than the Hamilton proposal.

  • Thank you for your thoughts, Dr. Tennent. I see major overlap between your proposal and the plan for amicable unity described at http://www.jurisdictionalsolution.org

    • Brett says:

      As a moderate in a progressive jurisdiction, implementing either proposal would appear to leave me in a dark place of being part of a progressive church, as this would be the overwhelming vote in my area. I don’t see an option for individual choice to be part of the segment of the church that one feels best adheres to Christian discipleship when in the minority.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    I was expecting that you would propose that our premier theologians duke it out, and that the Bishop Talberts of the church be asked to justify their divagations in light of the New Testament (specifically). I’m wondering why you stepped away from a biblical/theological showdown to a negotiated party-line settlement? Does this not defeat your case? I’m trying to reason out how this matches the historic courage of the Church in the face of peril.

    • Diane Murphy says:

      Are you kidding me? As a layperson, what benefit would I derive from paying my tithe to support the pensions of pastors who are heretics? I have been going to various conservative UMC churches in Oklahoma and Texas for 32 years. When there ceases to be a local congregation of conservative Methodists with a conservative pastor, then I will simply look for another church. I seek to live the lifestyle of Wesley. If the UMC ceases to be on board with that, I’m gone. The UMC will never be an idol for me. I say to paid church leaders, “It is time to make a stand in front of all God’s people, just as Joshua did, and declare ‘If serving The Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served….or the gods…in the land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve The Lord.'” Joshua 24:15 abridged.

  • Gus says:

    I don’t see this as a matter of rules and regulations. I see it as a matter of truth and deception.

    In the last days we are told. We will have to take a stand against those that profess to know Jesus but whose hearts are far from Him. I don’t see how a conservative could ever agree to that life style

  • Kevin M. says:

    I guess I am just a simple man whose entire life has been transformed by the Word of God that truly calls us out of the world and to become a disciple of Christ. The church is a place where the Word of God is supposed to be the guiding force and not the thoughts and whims of the people. If we truly want to grow as a church we need to remain true to the Word of God and no longer be conformed by the world and it’s influences. We are looking more and more like the pre-exiled nation of Israel and we need to remember what happened to them when they failed to be obedient to the Word of God.

  • Ted J. says:

    Very thoughtful discourse on this series Dr. Tennent. I am amazed that after thousands of years, the politics of man continues to try and change the word and Will of God. If the Bible represents God’s word, and thus always true and holy, then man made political institutions should abide by His Word, not their human designs. Unfortunately, not all will want to follow His word, but we should not abandon the truth to satisfy man’s willful disobedience, otherwise corruption of the Word will only continue to grow, with a dismissed beacon of light for true believers to follow!

  • Chad Holtz says:

    Dr. Tennent,

    I appreciate the work you have put into these posts. I agree with you that something needs to be done. We cannot continue like this forever.

    I’m less and less convinced, however, that any of the proposals I’ve since heard are workable. I am convinced of one thing: That all we need to be the Church Jesus calls us to be is already in our grasp. Our problem is disobedience. We do not practice church discipline and I lay the blame for this upon our church leadership.

    I have heard people cite the likes of everyone from Ignatius to Wesley to commend unity as a high virtue (which it is) and yet can any of us imagine either of these giants to stand idly by while one of their pastors broke church law in such rebellious fashion? Can anyone imagine the Pope enduring priests who married in defiance of the RCC? The reason the RCC remains united is because such rebellion would never be tolerated. Yet we allow it every day.

    In the absence of real leadership (which is what we have), I am wondering more and more if the wisdom of Gamaliel (Acts 5) is for us today? I don’t believe the progressive agenda will change our church law in 2016, and my hope and prayer is that they will decide to find a more suitable home for their ministries after that. Granted, what I really desire to see is our bishops stand up and lead, and cease being politicians trying to make everyone happy. But if this cannot be, why should those who are faithful to our church’s teaching be the one’s to move? Is it possible to make our position on human sexuality a permanent fixture in GC 2016 so that it ceases to be brought up in future conferences? I would favor such a move if that were possible.

    May God grant us wisdom, and have mercy on us all.

    Chad Holtz
    Holston Conference, provisional elder

  • Rod says:

    I also believe in civil discourse. However, adter watching the LGBT movement for several years (and the list of exceptions to male/female relationships keeps growing), I do not believe that anything will stand still in this area. More chaos will reign until the end times are over. This is human-made and ego driven. All could be over during our lifetimes, but all is not lost. God will see us through.

  • Shari says:

    Excellent series of articles. I am not a methodist, but am attending a UMC church presently. My husband and I left the ELCA church after their decision to ordain gay clergy living in monogamous relationships. We found this inconsistent with scripture. One of the pastors from our church has signed The Way Forward. The lead pastor has made reference to his disagreement with the church’s current stance on homosexuality in a cryptic sermon. My experience at this particular church is that many of the members look more toward the Bible as a list of suggestions, not doctrine. Some question what authority its writers had. As long as you are not passing judgement on anyone or anything you are fine. Please continue educating christians about this post modern world in which we live.

  • Ross M says:

    What? Compromise? Compromise what? Our foundation belief in the Word does not “allow” for intentional disobedience with the expressed, revealed will of God as written in the Bible. United or not, we must never stand for heresy or for “tolerance” when the action is sin. This would not be a split in the “United Methodist” church, but a cleaning and separating for wheat from chaff. To be asked to accept, in the name of progressive/conservative, disobedience because we in the 21st century feel that the Word is not as applicable today as in days of the apostles is undeniably wrong.

    I am a Christian first and Methodist a distant second. Further, to state that we should “adhere” to Wesley’s teachings as tightly as we would to the Word, is wrong. Wesley gave interpretation of the Word 1750 years after it was written. He wrote through the eyes of an Anglican facing apostacy and sin in the church in his day. We must do the same, but we cannot claim that we have a clear vision of the Word unless we are committed to obeying what is very clear and not applying our cultural “norms or values” to it. The Word is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow and holy/wholly sufficient for us.

    Split the church if you will but do not ask me to accept disobedience as the “norm” or as the right way to go forward.

  • Karl Kroger says:

    I hope and pray that all of us who so adamantly believe they right on scriptural interpretation of matters of sexuality, remember that we live in the shadows of churches and denominations who’s convictions just as strong on scriptural interpretation of matters of race and gender. May we all have the humility to know we sometimes get things wrong.

    • Chad Holtz says:

      Karl,
      Are you willing to admit that you could be wrong when you bless homosexual practice?

      What else should we be uncertain about? Incest? Polygamy? Polyamory? Beastiality? People involved in each of these can demonstrate feelings of love and adoration, even an “orientation” towards one of the other. Or how about the deity of Christ or the Resurrection or the Trinity? Perhaps we are wrong on these things too?

      I think the better course is to pray that God would help our unbelief.

      • Mark says:

        Excellent points, Chad.

        Especially when self-interests are involved, everyone wants to make everything a matter of “interpretation.” It’s really rather juvenile: kids do it all the time when they are trying to get out of something.

        Well, 2+2 equalling 4 is not a matter of interpretation…that is, unless you are totally incompetant in math. In like fashion, what the Bible says about homosexual practice is not a matter of interpretation, unless you are unable to comprehend the written word (that is, it’s not matter of interpretation, it’s a matter of comprehension). I think marriage redefinitionists would do their credibility a great service if they simply admitted that they disagree with Scripture or don’t really care what it says. They would also do themselves a favor if that stopped illogically comparing race with something identified primarily by behavior.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Dr. Tennet, many of us are hoping you will have another word on this topic. Even though your wind-up was clever (Go and multiply!), it didn’t complete the loop of your theme. I hope you might return to your “holy contention” theme, pick it up and go further. Isn’t it time for the holy contention, I mean the fiery “holy” part of it, to be manifest?

  • kdbutton says:

    I really feel bad for all trying to find a solution who also have their pensions at risk. It makes it very difficult I would imagine. But as a lay person I would not want my offerings given to God to be used to enable and support ungodliness. The money must be split otherwise people will hold back. More confusion. Ministry hindered. Also in rural areas laity unhappy with the alignment their UMC took would have to travel for miles to find one that in good conscience they could attend. I can feel the heartbreak already. Where will they go? A betrayal. I am ashamed and disappointed with those in places of UMC authority who have not disciplined clerical rebellion. It feels like a betrayal. We’re not those covenants made and broken also a covenant made to us? Are there any heroes left in the UMC?

    • David Wehrle says:

      I don’t think that our pension is at risk, really. If I walk away from the denomination, the pension I have accrued here will remain until I am able to collect it. I will not be able to take advantage of any health benefit that I might enjoy if I serve several years in the UMC immediately prior to retiring from the UMC. Another reality is that those of us who have served only 10 or even 15 years have accrued less than 100k in church contributed pension funds. It really isn’t that much to walk away from, especially when it is an issue of obedience to Jesus. It is unfortunate that false information about loss of pension continues to circulate and influence pastors.

    • Mike says:

      What to name the two new denominations?

      We could call one The George Bush Methodist Church and the other The Hillary Clinton Methodist Church.

      I’ll let you figure out which is which.

  • David Wehrle says:

    Dr. Tennent:

    This is a GREAT series of posts. Thank you!

    Can you write an alternative ending for us? I think it is important to point to some pragmatic way forward as you have done. I am simply confused about why we need to compromise and provide churches or an alternative denomination or sub-denomination for those who disagree with the United Methodist Church and want to change it.

    Can you write an ending in which we lovingly excommunicate those who are not United Methodist in belief or practice from the United Methodist church? How do we remove bishops and other denominational leaders who are no longer United Methodist? How do we create relationships with other denominations like the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Episcopal Church that allow us to offer our clergy who are no longer United Methodist a path to serving in a denomination that embraces their practice and belief? How do we return to the reality that what you believe and how you practice your faith are what make you United Methodist? No one is born United Methodist.

    The other option is that I become a member of the Wesleyan Church. This is a very good option, actually. I stay because I follow John Wesley’s example in “On Schism” to stay until I am prohibited from preaching the gospel or until I am made to preach something other than the gospel. That day may be coming sooner rather than later if United Methodists continue to compromise Christian belief and practice. The gospel is the one true hope for all who wish to flee the wrath to come. If we no longer believe that we are sinful and deserving of God’s wrath, Jesus’ death and resurrection offer an unnecessary hope, for we are all acceptable to God as we are. This is not the gospel. The Wesleyan Church seems to have it right from the very outset; their new branding is “made new.” Let’s offer our colleagues in the United Methodist Church who disagree with the United Methodist understanding of the gospel the opportunity to be made new, or if they are unwilling to change to find another church in which they can “remain the same.”

  • Brett says:

    It seems those who are trying to make a way to be separate yet remain together (as in Dr. Tennent’s and the Hamilton and Slaughter plans) are in the bargaining stage of grief. Only when we reach the stage of accepting that we are already separate and make the separation official can we truly find a way forward.

  • Ron says:

    Dr. Tennant
    I appreciate the blogs you have so carefully written. That is why I am so disappointed with the final one. Having been an elder over nearly 60 years I have followed the question since it first arrived at G.C. I am convinced that we are already divided and need to acknowledge it. Details of a formal division can be worked out after G.C. decides to do it. For me the basis of the UMC is Scripture first and the BOD second.

  • Aaron Rowe says:

    I’ll echo what seems to be the trend amongst the comments. There’s really nothing that conservative United Methodists and liberal United Methodists can be united upon. There cannot be a discourse and conversation arising from the inerrant and authoritative Scripture defining our traditions as the liberals have not simply misinterpreted Scripture, but ignored it and are willing to remain in their utter rebellion to God’s Word and the civil structure of the Church. “Holy Conferencing” will not solve the UMC’s problem any more than the Diet of Worms solved the Roman Catholic Church’s problem. The issue stems from the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

    Conservative Evangelical organizations such as the AG, SBC, PCA, etc. have maintained their stance on the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and thus have survived. Once we depart from the written Word of God and embrace this “Voice of God” approach to Scriptural authority we’ve lost the Faith for which our father’s died.

    United Methodists are faced with the problem that Luther and Huss faced, viz. that those with whom they were attempting to argue had left the common ground of Scripture and embraced tradition as co-sufficient. So too is it with liberals who have demonstrated that cultural relativism is on equal par with divine revelation found in Scripture alone, i.e. that the depraved world is just as relevant to ecclesiastical conversations as Holy Scripture.

    “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life–is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” [1Jo 2:15-17 ESV]

  • Steve says:

    We are to love everyone but first we are commanded to love God and yet we have become so wise in the last 40+ years that we can choose to ignore God’s word given to us in the scriptures that speaks to immorality in the church, not just homosexuality (or whatever older term that describes immoral living)?

    So, this controversy has been going on for 40+ years and always “voted down” at GC. When I joined a UMC some years ago I chose to believe that was a testament of their commitment to scripture first and secondly to the BOD. Since our last GC I now realize that leadership of my District, Conference and many at the United States UMC (just read their websites) actively support the abandoning of any part of scripture that speaks of moral living and how to deal with immorality within the church. The local church I attend has leadership that preaches and teaches from the scriptures but I have found no way to continue tithing locally without supporting all the other levels of the UMC.

    By their inaction on the biblical teachings of what immorality is and how to deal with it, the UMC leadership has shown their support. Since they haven’t acted I would suggest 1 Corinthians 6:18 – Flee sexual immorality. We cannot destroy His church but we should not support a denomination that turns from His word.

    I have chosen not to wait another year or for the next GC. I have stopped all future tithes of money but, at least temporarily, will continue to support the local church through service and attendance.

    I pray for the health of the body of Christ. And yes, this whole “happening” is no surprise to our heavenly Father and whatever else we do, or don’t do, we cannot stop His word.

  • […] Rev. Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary, offers a seven-part response in which he identifies deeper theological and ecclesiological problems in the UMC which “A Way Forward” avoids, critiques the proposal’s post-modernism, explains how it would lead to “more conflict and division, not less,” notes how it fails to address the realities and pastoral needs of self-identified members of the LGBTQIA community, and observes that “not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward.” He concludes his series by tentatively suggesting the outlines of a plan for the UMC to “Multiply, not Divide.” […]