Here are a few of my reflections on the recently completed meeting of the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
First, we must be aware of how the wider global Christian movement who are not members of the United Methodist Church viewed this final vote. I realize that some may not fully appreciate the importance of these voices, but it is certainly part of our commitment to catholicity to remember that we are not just a struggling mainline denomination trying to become healthy—we are part of the glorious, indestructible body of Christ which stretches back through time and through space around the world. The global church has been overwhelmingly positive about what was decided at General Conference. The affirmation of an historic Christian view regarding marriage and the body is a huge encouragement to so many around the world who have become accustomed to the mainline churches seemingly inevitable march to re-position themselves outside the stream of historic faith.
Second, the vote was also an historic vote in the history of mainline Protestantism. There are five large “mainline” denominations in the USA: United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Episcopal Church (TEC), and the American Baptist Church (ABC). The United Methodist Church is the only mainline denomination, to date, which has managed to maintain the biblical ethic on the definition of Christian marriage and the sanctity of our bodies as created “male” or “female.” If this vote holds, and, more importantly, it stimulates deeper renewal in biblical fidelity, then we could be a beacon of hope for all of these older churches who are continuing their precipitous decline at alarming rates.
Third, we must listen to what God is teaching us through the pain of those who were so bitterly disappointed in this vote. This is no time for triumphalism. The church is still as deeply divided as it was the week before the General Conference. C. S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps we could agree on a slight amendment to the last phrase: Pain is also God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf church. We clearly have a lot of pastoral work to do to extend the love of Christ to those who struggle with their sexual identity or their assigned birth gender. It was right for the church to defend the biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman. To concede this point would have caused not only a fracturing division with the global church, but even more importantly, a serious erosion of the basic Christian commitment that the Scriptures will always be the authoritative and final witness to the faith, life and ethics of the church of Jesus Christ for all time. Nonetheless, the deep cries of anguish by those who were disappointed in the vote always remind us that we have much unfinished business in fully articulating a theology of the body and the grand vision of marriage which the Scriptures so nobly set forth, and to which we have not always been a vibrant witness.
Finally, we are all saddened by the divided nature of the United Methodist Church. I truly believe that this sadness is shared by the whole church. It seems intractable. In my view, it would be a mistake to simply return to General Conference in 2020 and re-fight this same issue all over again, though I have no role in those kind of decisions. However, as a United Methodist clergy person, The One Church Plan, called by different names, has now been voted down four times. I think it would be a poor strategy to expect different results in 2020, especially since the global delegates will have increased. A better approach would be to step back from this issue and try to focus on the underlying sources of our division as a church. From the perspective of how the United Methodist Church is situated within the Christian movement, it would be a tragedy if we were to accept de facto, as has been said quite a bit in recent weeks, that “the way forward” is to follow the teachings of Jesus and not the teachings of Paul and others in the epistles who set forth many of the ethical parameters which are being rejected by those who want to normalize same sex behavior. The idea that Jesus is timeless while Paul and the others are all culture bound and have no voice in the life of the church would be catastrophic in terms of our denominational future as a viable Christian movement. To separate “Jesus” from “Paul” in this way ends up not being true to Jesus or to Paul since both are now being used for our purposes rather than representing God’s revelation to us.
Let me be clear, there are no “winners” and “losers” in this struggle. It is the gospel which must prevail and call us all to die to ourselves and, through spiritual rebirth, be raised up and united with Christ. We all must do a better job listening to the whole of Scripture. We must all do a better job listening to our beloved Wesleyan heritage. We must all do a better job in listening to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ who is Lord of the Church and has summoned us all as sinners into His glorious presence. For I know that we all agree—the last thing we want to have ringing in our ears at the end of this struggle is that terrifying word of judgment from Christ when He comes to look for fruit on the tree called United Methodism and says, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again.” We all hope for a day when fruitfulness will, once again, be the hallmark of our beloved church.