United Methodist General Conference and the Unity of the Church

Thursday, May 5th, 2016

General Conference was originally designed to celebrate our unity as a connectional church. Today, it has become the public testimony before the world of how utterly divided we are as a movement. But, let us remember that when Jesus said, “I will build my church” He was not referring to the institutional survival of a particular denomination called United Methodist. Many of the proposals before General Conference will focus on keeping the structural unity of the church at all cost, without any proper consideration of the real basis for unity which is the gospel itself. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for our dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. It is indestructible because He has promised to build it – and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The Lord does not need any of our us to “save the church” from extinction. Our death as a church – as with any church – comes only by separating ourselves from His Headship. If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.

Legislation in a Post-Modern Church

One of the proposals which will come before General Conference is to keep the current Discipline language which states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.” According to the proposal, this language is retained and remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. Then, in a strange legislative vision, it goes on to create a second level of legislation which would allow Methodist churches to legally disobey the Discipline and, with the support of their pastor and a 66% vote, formalize same-sex marriages. Likewise, annual conferences could vote and choose to ordain and appoint gay and lesbian pastors. So, legislatively, the UMC would be put in the unenviable position of having to write legislation whereby, on the one hand, a law was established, only to be followed by another law which would allow people to disobey the earlier law. We end up with two completely different “orthodoxies”—one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One part of the church would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other part would teach that it is a sacrament. One part would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other part, a sign of wholeness. One would be referring to homosexual practice along with all other sins when we say in the Creed, “we believe in the forgiveness of sins” the other would be teaching that homosexual marriage is a “means of grace.”

The fact that this kind of legislation is before the church demonstrates how far we have fallen. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known. Let’s not forget that there has been precious little haggling over the meaning of actual texts in this struggle. The loss of energy for the real serious exegetical work has demonstrated the new meaninglessness of such an endeavor in a post-modern world where everything is possible and nothing is certain.

Truth as truth (revelation) has been deposed. We are left with seemingly endless shades of personal opinion and personal preferences, all equally legitimate, with no way to adjudicate anything. So the only thing left to do legislatively is to legislate endless accommodations. The tragedy of this epistemological collapse is that not only can we no longer read the Bible with confidence; we can’t even get guidance from John Wesley.

But, take heart, the church has seen much darker days than this. In times of difficulty God always raises up better hearers of the gospel. Whether a movement called United Methodist survives is not nearly as important as if the gospel itself prevails among the people called Methodist.


  • Mary Page says:

    Third possibility and its time has come

    Moral conscience issue
    What if we are the only denomination to walk both paths honestly and ethically? We are all broken some how and some we know how and most of the rest of us get to hide it.

    But to return. What is conscience, in the Christian sense? It is that faculty of the soul which, by the assistance of the grace of God, sees at one and the same time, (1.) Our own tempers and lives, — the real nature and quality of or thoughts, words, and actions; (2.) The rule whereby we are to be directed; and, (3.) The agreement or disagreement therewith. To express this a little more largely: Conscience implies, First, the faculty a man has of knowing himself; of discerning, both in general and in particular, his own tempers, thoughts, words, and actions. But this it is not possible for him to do, without the assistance of the Spirit of God. Otherwise, self-love, and, indeed, every other irregular passion, would disguise and wholly conceal him from himself. It implies, Secondly, a knowledge of the rule whereby he is to be directed in every particular; which is no other than the written word of God. Conscience implies, Thirdly, a knowledge that all his thoughts, and words, and actions are conformable to that rule. In all the offices of conscience, the “unction of the Holy One” is indispensably needful. Without this, neither could we clearly discern our lives or tempers; nor could we judge of the rule whereby we are to walk, or of our conformity of disconformity to it. – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-105-On-Conscience#sthash.TTCHlnmP.dpuf

    The gospel itself in the same sermon at the end of all the explorations 10. “Think, and speak, and do what you are persuaded Christ himself would do in your case, were he on earth. It becomes a Christian, rather to be an example to all, who was, and is, and ever will be, our absolute pattern. O Christians, how did Christ pray, and redeem time for prayer! How did Christ preach, out of whose mouth proceeded no other but gracious words? What time did Christ spend in impertinent discourse? How did Christ go up and down, doing good to men, and what was pleasing to God? Beloved, I commend to you these four memorials: (1.) Mind duty: (2.) What is the duty of another in your case, is your own: (3.) Do not meddle with anything, if you cannot say, The blessing of the Lord be upon it: (4.) Above all, sooner forget your Christian name, than forget to eye Christ! Whatever treatment you meet with from the world, remember him and follow his steps, ‘who did not sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: Who when he was reviled, reviled not again; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously.’ ” – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-105-On-Conscience#sthash.TTCHlnmP.dpuf

  • Chris Goff says:

    Yes! Thanks Dr. Tennent for your reminder that The Church is so much more than the institutions which we seek to preserve.

  • [clap …… clap ……clap]
    Well said, well presented. I especially like the third sentence. We forget sometimes, in our “denominational” fights (both intra- and inter-) that Jesus doesn’t need us for anything, we need Him for everything.
    Thank you Mr. Tennent for a great article.

  • My heart aches as I think of you trying to maintain the Unity of the United Methodist Church and the work you have before you.
    The Bible seems to have been interpreted and re-interpreted time after time since the first words were written. Those who did so felt they were more accurately ‘attuned’ to the understanding of the people they were being read to. I am upset when a verse taken from the Old Testament is used to ‘prove a point’. I feel it was written as a guideline to people at a specific time and place. The New Testament is simpler and touches us to “Love One Another, and our neighbor as ourself”. We need no other rule.

    All persons are Children of God, and God does NOT make junk! These are my primary beliefs. Please, try and show others that just as changes were made ages ago, so we are in a time of change now. Sincerely, Mary Wilkins