Final Thoughts Before the 2019 United Methodist Church General Conference in St. Louis

For those who follow my blog, you will be aware of the upcoming 2019 special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, called to respond to the report of the Commission on a Way Forward regarding human sexuality. I recently published six reasons why we should reject the so-called One Church Plan. I have also affirmed in earlier blogs the importance of the church standing with the global church and the church throughout time in affirming historic orthodox views regarding the definition of marriage and a Christian view of the body. However, now that this historic meeting is upon us, perhaps a few final thoughts are in order.

First, remember our love for the church. It is easy to be discouraged and disheartened by all of the dysfunction and brokenness in the church. It is demoralizing to even be asked to “vote” on the issue which is before us, since biblical authority is (or should be) the sine qua non of the church. But I cannot forget that the United Methodist Church was the means of grace for me to receive Christ, to receive a call into the ministry, and the place where I have had wonderful opportunities for preaching and pastoral ministry. To quote that beautiful hymn about the church by Robert Stamps, the United Methodist Church was “my waking place, of early call and signs of grace.” It is precisely because we love the church so much that those who are delegates must gather up their courage, go to General Conference, and protect the church from making more steps towards its own demise. There is no inevitability to “mainline decline.” The decline of all the mainline churches is linked to their neglect of biblical authority and theological stability. We can break that link in St. Louis.

Second, we must not be angry, or fall into despair. There is a real possibility that certain decisions (or the lack of decision because the presiding bishops cannot control demonstrations) would force hundreds of thousands of Methodists to find a new church home. Hundreds of thousands more will accept life in a protracted period of ecclesial exile within the denomination until a better day arises. This would be an extremely sad and disconcerting turn of events since most of us have never known any other denominational family, and the United Methodist Church, with all of its flaws, has historically stood on the side of historic orthodoxy. We have stayed and pastored, we have preached and prayed, we have tried to remember our ordination vows, even as we have watched millions leave the church. We are not prone to separation. We have prayed earnestly that we would not be torn asunder.

But, regardless of the outcome, we must not succumb to anger or despair. We must always remember that the deeper foundation of Jesus Christ will never fail us. We must remember that the faithful church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). We should have no fear of the demise of the Church. Absolutely none. Of course, particular denominations may rise and fall. Some remain faithful, and some disappear and are lost. But, the true Church of Jesus Christ, the Body of Christ, will last into eternity. Our prayer is that the United Methodist Church will remain faithfully connected to the glorious church of Jesus Christ.

Third, the One Church Plan is not, as advertised, the plan where everyone can have what they want. By this point, most of us have heard the well-rehearsed refrain: “The One Church Plan will not force anyone to change. If you want to stay as you are, you can.” However, in my view, that is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of this legislation. The One Church Plan does, in fact, require two massive changes for every single United Methodist in the country, and every person in every Central Conference around the world united to United Methodism.

First, this refrain obscures the fact that the One Church Plan is but one more step (in their view) in a long hard struggle for the liberation of the church from all sexual mores. It is being sold as the plan that will produce peace in the church, when it will actually be the most divisive act imaginable. The fighting will continue. We will still have fighting at every General Conference, but now it will spread to every conference, and every local church in the country. We used to know that these struggles would be limited to once every four years, and in some distant city in some distant state. Now, the fights will continue, year in and year out, right in our own churches and conferences until the progressives get the “church” they have envisioned.

Second, it requires all of us (regardless of what position we hold) to accept the moral equivalency of the opposing position. For me, this is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” It is one thing to argue about whether homosexuality is a “sin” or a “sacrament.” It is one thing to argue about whether same sex marriage is “biblical” or “unbiblical.” It is entirely another to actually embrace the view that it is both, depending on the majority vote of a local church or an annual conference. It is this postmodern view of truth which is so objectionable to our entire theological tradition, both as Christians and as Wesleyans. Truth has always been determined by good exegesis of Scripture, and an attentive listening to the theological tradition in which we stand. The One Church Plan forces us to embrace the notion that truth is socially constructed by the various factions and groups within society. Truth as truth has been deconstructed and all we have are endless personal preferences. The very fact that so many bishops, pastors, and delegates have embraced such a postmodern view of truth shows how far we have strayed. It is the formal embrace of this new view of truth which is actually the most destructive threat the United Methodist Church church faces in St. Louis.

Finally, I remain hopeful. I have the privilege of traveling all across the country and, indeed, the world, meeting and talking with those in our Methodist family. In the last three months I have been on every inhabited continent on earth. This spring I am preaching in United Methodist Church congregations and gatherings in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. In the midst of the pain, I also hear strains of hope.

We are hopeful that those who gather in St. Louis will discover a fresh wind of the grace of God and a solid reaffirmation of historic faith. This could be the turning point for a new phase of evangelism, church planting, and discipleship. I still believe that all of the losses we have incurred over the last fifty years can be completely reversed. We need a national strategy for evangelism and church planting. We need a solid re-affirmation of our biblical and theological heritage. We need well equipped laity and clergy for the work which is before us. This vision of renewal and revitalization is still within our grasp. It will require a turn from the waywardness of our recent history. But, it is still possible that the turn could happen in St. Louis, and after the final gavel has sounded, we could break out and sing, “And Can it Be?” May it be so.