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.