Thoughts As the United Methodist Church Prepares for General Conference 2020

Monday, June 3rd, 2019

The church has always been misunderstood and maligned by the unbelieving world. But it is an added pain to live with both a broken world and a broken, hurting church. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “there is no greater tragedy than a sick church in a dying world.” The United Methodist church is hurting and sick. It is one of the few things that people across the various divisions all seem to agree upon. When the United Methodist Church, or any church, is walking through this kind of travail, it is important, in the words of the liturgy, to “lift up your heart” and regain clarity on a few points which have become obscured in all of the discussions.

Is the Church of Jesus Christ “exclusionary”?

It is common for voices within the so-called “progressive” wing to declare those who adhere to historic orthodoxy (whether doctrines such as the uniqueness and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, or historical ethical positions such as defining marriage as between one man and one woman for life) as being exclusionary. It has been said so often in recent blog articles and sermons and full page ads in local newspapers that it requires a response. This assessment has become exacerbated in recent weeks in the wake of the ChurchNext conference hosted by Adam Hamilton. Previously, we had three distinct “groups” within the United Methodist Church: traditional, centrist, and progressive. Now that the One Church Plan has been voted down at the 2019 General Conference, many centrists are abandoning the position of “let’s agree to disagree and respect that both views are honorable” to a firm alignment with the progressive cause which seeks to silence and shame those who adhere to the global and historic position of the church regarding the definition of marriage. Central to their agenda is the narrative that the church around the world is exclusionary.

However, it is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most diverse, inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and becoming even more diverse today than at any time in the history of the world. The United Methodist Church is the outlier, not the center, of Christian global vitality. The very idea that the church is becoming exclusionary is a false narrative.

Second, the reason the church is able to take root and flourish around the world is because we share a common faith in Christ, a common commitment to the Word of God, including a shared ethic as set forth in the New Testament. The progressives within the United Methodist Church stand on neither historic nor biblical grounds by trying to introduce a unique set of ethical guidelines for one particular movement within the grand body of Christianity. Indeed, the very reason for the church’s diversity is that its message is not rooted in any one culture or people, but reflects the universal truths of divine revelation. The meager attempts by a few in our midst to try to demonstrate that this new ethic is actually consistent with Scripture have failed the most basic test of understanding Greek words; namely, the consistent way they are used by the authors and readers of the New Testament. In other words, original meaning is the gold standard, and recent attempts to narrow these meanings to conform to modern sentiments has no lexical support. (When you hear these new interpretations, you might want to ask, “Does Danker or Bauer support that?” [NT], or “Does Brown, Driver Briggs support that?” [OT]).

The word “inclusive” refers to the universal gift of salvation which is extended to all peoples in all the earth. The gospel, properly understood, is inclusive. However, the word is now being used to embrace the idea that we should be morally inclusive of a wide range of ethical positions within the church regarding human sexuality and gender identity. All peoples from all cultures throughout all times have come to Christ and submitted to the teaching of the New Testament. That’s what it means to be part of the church. Everyone is invited, but those who do come, must come to Christ on his terms, not ours.

Are those who uphold the biblical and historic view of marriage unleashing irreparable harm on people, particularly those within the LGBTQ community?

It is truly remarkable how a position which has been clearly held and affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ for the 2,000 years of our existence as a movement can, almost overnight, become regarded as hateful, harmful, and exclusionary. It is painful to be a United Methodist Christian and hold to a position which continues to be the official position of our denomination, but be held in such open contempt and shame by many even in leadership. The United Methodist Church has explicitly affirmed biblical marriage between one man and one woman for life since the union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. From the 1972 General Conference onward, this position has been challenged. The General Conference has voted down a range of proposals to redefine marriage a dozen times over the years, and a thirteenth time at the recent General Conference in 2019. It is a safe bet that fresh challenges will be put forth in 2020 and it will be voted down a fourteenth time. I am not sure how many times it takes for a “no” to be heard, but we will eventually find out. We are probably getting close to that point now. But, several points need to be made. First, there has been no change in the United Methodist Discipline since the beautiful double affirmation of 1972 which declared all people of infinite worth but also affirmed the longstanding Christian position that homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian faith. In short, there was nothing “new” in our actual position before or after the most recent General Conference in 2019. The only change has been an attempt to legislatively hold pastors and bishops accountable to a Discipline that they had already sworn before God to uphold. That is embarrassing. But, as it relates to the actual position of the church, no change to the position of the church has been made. So if there is “harm” it is not a new harm, but the harm which is inherent in this position for those who disagree. Which brings me to the second point.

There is an underlying assumption that the church must never hold a position which causes someone any pain or discomfort. This has been called the post-modern “tyranny of niceness.” This says that the church, above all else, must never say anything that offends someone, because it may cause them pain. However, I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”[1] So, when someone says that the message of the church has caused “harm” we should not put our heads down and apologize. Rather, we should say, “Yes, the gospel both blesses and bruises us all.” Every true Christian has been bruised by the demands of discipleship, the call to die to self, and to live holy lives, “taking up our cross to follow him.” We are all asked to give up our greed, our propensity to gossip, our jealousy, our disordered affections, our anger, and so forth. It is a long list which eventually encompasses every one of us with all the various sins we have a propensity to commit. Are we born this way? Yes, we are. It is known as the Fall. We are all members of a race full of sinners. There are no exceptions. Our hearts are deceitful and we need redemption. The list of our sins is quite long. But, no one gets a “pass” which allows their particular sin to be called holy, while all others have to lay theirs down. The gospel nails us all to the cross with Christ. But, once that happens, it raises us up with Christ and gives us new power for holy living. He rightly orders our affections. He takes away our greed and self-orientation. In short, those of us who have been bruised by the gospel, are now being blessed by the gospel. And the blessing is always greater than the bruising. Whenever God says “no” to us, it always feels like “harm” and “hurt.” But God’s “no” is always his deeper “yes” since the way of righteousness is always the path of human flourishing. Wesley’s phrase that we are to “do no harm” (cited endlessly) has nothing whatsoever to do with dismantling the call to holiness and the pain which we all must accept when our lives pass through the cross of Jesus Christ. This point, of course, provides no license for any Christian to speak in a hateful or mean way to anyone. We must be clothed with kindness, but we must also be resolute in defending the integrity of the biblical witness.

What lies ahead? In a recent pastoral letter from the Council of Bishops it appears that the bishops are searching for legislation which creates a “new way of embodying unity.” This probably means some form of restructuring or de-structuring which will allow for an amicable separation. I think the bishops are right to open this door and we should spend the next year focused on that, rather than simply repeating the pain and trauma of the 2019 General Conference. The progressive clergy, in contrast, are unleashing a widespread plan of resistance which will defy the Discipline. We should not dismiss this as an idle threat. We will be publicly and regularly shamed at every turn. This will be done in the hope that sufficient numbers of traditionalists will leave the church in disgust and the “progressives” will finally have the denomination they have been advocating for over these many years. However, the math just doesn’t work. Because of the growth of the church outside North America and the precipitous decline in the more “progressive” regions of North America, the 2020 General Conference will likely have even stronger traditional delegations than we have seen in many years. In 2016, and even 2019, there was widespread hope by traditionalists that we would be given a gracious exit plan. However, now there is no reason for traditionalists to exit the denomination as there would have been had the One Church Plan prevailed. Instead, the momentum has shifted and the United Methodist Church is clearly moving from being just another dying mainline Protestant denomination to becoming a vibrant member of the growing global Wesleyan movement. It was an astute observation that the day of the 2019 General Conference vote was the moment the United Methodist Church decided to move from being a mainline church to becoming a global church. Our focus now should be the legislative work necessary to present an “amicable separation” plan which creates two separate denominations. The names will have to be decided, but they will be some form of a Progressive Methodist Church and some form of a Global Methodist Church.

Throughout this process, let us take seriously the Council of Bishops call for “a season of deep listening.” But that deep listening should be first and foremost to the text of Scripture, the vibrancy of the global church and the never-dimming message of our Wesleyan heritage, rooted in the gospel and the call to holiness.

[1] Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.

Comments

  • Eric Benoy says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart and words of wisdom. Though an SBC minister (and we have had our share of “disagreements” as you know), I do lift up my/our UMC brothers and sisters as you all go through this process/journey. May God guide your leadership in the tough decisions ahead and provide healing for all.

  • Robert Black says:

    Fred — Here’s the blog. You can follow him at timothytennent.com. Bob

  • Kim Batteau says:

    Thank you, Dr. Tennent, for more biblical, historically and ecumenically orthodox words of wisdom for this hour in the United Methodist church. May the Lord help His world-wide church to be faithful to Him, no matter what the cost! We in The Netherlands need to hear more voices like yours! sincerely in Christ, John M. (Kim) Batteau, retired minister of the Reformed Churches in The Netherlands (Liberated)

  • Edith Parker says:

    This is brilliantly written and is the witness we traditionalists would encourage. Thank you,Dr.Tennent.

  • Very well written and from sound thinking and theology. I have reached similar conclusions experientially and logically in my book, The Faith of a Seeker.

  • David Miller says:

    Sir, Is it “deep listening” when Bishops ordain gay clergy in direct defiance of the 2019 Conference? These Bishops are intentionally violating the Book of Discipline by their actions. It is the Bishops, by their resistance to God’s Word, that are harming the Church. I am very upset. As an orthodox Christian I am harmed and hurt by their actions; yet no one shows me sympathy. The Bishops must be called to account!

  • Global church, YES! Regional/National Church, NO! Interesting that the global church is prevailing as globalism and global politics fails.

  • John Uzoma says:

    In Ibo land, we say “When you see a goat eating your neighbor’s yam and yours is in the farm, shuu the goat away because after eating your neighbors’ it will turn to yours”. When Anglicans were battling same issue, many mainline denomination looked the other way. I wish you all God’s grace.

  • betsy says:

    Thank you for standing up for traditionalists and naming the intolerance of progressives towards us.

  • Having grown up in the UMC, I have been deeply saddened that so many in the clergy have been deceived into turning from Scripture. This particular controversy will lead to a separation between the sheep and goats. I pray that the resulting global body to which you refer will remain faithful to God’s Word. Thank you for your clear exposition of the problem.

  • Thank you for your clear and concise essay. My concern is the “big” UMC let this topic rise to the level it did. I am neither a traditionalist nor a progressive but a humble Jesus living Bible reading pragmatist. The UMC leaders must be GOD-centered and Biblically-focused but have a fiduciary obligation to the organization. They needed to manage this process more effectively. UMC congregations are greying and this process only excels the rate. Love God and do rate but be effective as well!

  • Bob East says:

    I am a traditionalist; however, is the UMC not implicit to some extent? On one hand, all are welcomed to become members, even if they are GLBQO; the clergy is bound by the Book of Disciple to not perform marriages to same sex couples. I’m not sure all the UMC churches “fully have open doors” to all in many cases. Sure, we may affirm that we do; but our actions and attitudes toward those in our local communities speak loudly that we really do not. How many UMC churches might resist allowing every member to participate in leadership (children; youth and adult) ministries of teaching, discipling, counseling, etc. Or, to offer baptism for an infant, child, or gay parent, or same sex married couple who are by statutory law married or the civil union process? “Full membership” through vows doesn’t necessarily mean equality for all others in the local church. Yet, here we are; UMC, will continue to decrease in the United States is factual based on the current position, particularly as those under age 45 remained faithful to the body of Christ. I really do not know of any survey/poll asking 1000s of people to participate in that will actually show, for in the U S itself, social values, individual mores will (not in theological or scholarly terms), but the totality of unbiased experts including demographers, social scientists, unbiased religious scholars, ethicists, leaders of main line denominations/independent churches, etc. show that all members the church must continues to serve and love all who are lost, sick/infirmed, disadvantaged, regardless of their place of origin, immigration status, race, social status, gender, and psychological/socially accepted (legal and practiced in moral conscience) representative at all social/economic levels, local/national customs, etc. as Disciples of Christ. “Just not with me at my place of worship” is raw, real and the unspoken truth within UMC currently. “full inclusion into the body” is at best, all smoke and mirrors. The most recent survey conducted by the UMC through an independent survey company, in all due respect, was poorly written in such a way to “authenticate” “loaded” questions that some wanted to be affirmed. It is much more nuanced that many write about today; and, for me, as a simple lay member of an UMC affiliated church, it is simply is a circular argument—not fit for “holy conferencing”, or a serious discussion (dialectical) among the leaders of various camps with the UMC and the laity. “Self-identified” categories should always include a large statistical deviation as many will respond “more positively/negatively” depending on their personal belief system (not jut faith system). I suspect that those who call the U S home, only 25-30% or so (when questions are well written; polls must offer a variety of possible responses and then followed by another sample of individually or group interviewed random adult sample using common language( not religiously generated) language. This actually coincides closely with unbiased national polls of self-identified “evangelicals” and conservative, as defined by social scientists today. Dr. Tenet’s position is well written as many have said. As is often the case, well intentioned people of faith place their specific understanding of compassion and social justice in context to past history, preferred practice and “comfortable” with those as members of their own “tribe.”

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Thank you, Dr. Tennent, for a clear, challenging, and rigorous proclamation of the truth! You edify and encourage and exhort us to obey Christ faithfully and fully. Please give us more! The church needs you to lead because so many are muddled and foolish in their thinking. They can only lead us to ruin.

  • Thank you Dr. Tennent! We are so grateful for your clear, incisive thinking and trumpet call to hope!

  • Stan Joy says:

    Thank you so much for this very informative message!! I am just an old Methodist, being one for about 35 years! I have been very disappointed for some time now in the failure of some of our Bishops to do their job! If they had, I don’t think we would be in this mess now!! I’m from NH, but would never go back to my home church now, because of their liberal feelings! I attend Rosinton Methodist in Robertsdale, Ala., and this church is the strongest evangelical church I have ever attended!! Thanks for giving us followers of John Wesley hope! Thanks again!

  • Bill Tassin says:

    A well written essay…yet it may not change opinions but rather support those with minds made up. Traditionalist vs. Progressives. Neither receptive to compromise on homosexuals being allowed to marry while each recognize separation of UMC as certain failure. Would Is Catholic Leadership cover up criminal behavior? Would our law makers and their corporate supporters embrace corrupt behavior? Is change ever necessary?

  • Dr Tennent is right, my sin or your sin, sin is sin. We all come to the throne the same way, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. His Word doesn’t change, we must. I am currently reading the Book of Hebrews and Chapter 11 comes to life with quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12 regarding God disciplining those he loves. I pray our church leaders will reread these books – admittedly written by man but inspired by God Himself – rethink their actions, and accusations, put aside their agendas and move forward preaching the gospel – as written and accepted for 2000 years, while loving your neighbor as yourself and making disciples of men.

  • You are not a victim, President Tennent, as much as you want to see yourself that way. I just got back from Uganda where I was supporting a fledgling grassroots movement of Christians who are fighting for LGBT rights under very dangerous circumstances. They showed me the way that British colonialism imposed homophobia in their penal code after LGBT identity had been a natural part of their culture for millennia. This “universal” stance in global Christianity that you cite is simply the self-validating echo of the Western European colonial missionary enterprise. The LGBT community in Uganda are regularly imprisoned and even murdered because of the influence of American evangelicals like Scott Lively. But they are standing courageously against their oppressors, and the new generation coming up is done with the patriarchy that motivates the homophobia. Before you die, your presumed global consensus is going to crumble before your eyes. You just lost Botswana. You’re losing Kenya. You lost South Africa a decade ago. African LGBT Christians are the martyrs and heroes of this story, not you.

    What I wish you would examine about yourself is why you are litmus testing the gospel on the basis of LGBT exclusion. Why do you want to focus on the “no” that you think God is saying to other people instead of the “no” that God might be saying to you? Does it ever occur to you that LGBT people might be functioning as scapegoats in your ideological system to let you off the hook for your own discipleship?

    All of this essay operates in caricature. It’s very difficult not to be insulted by it. Inclusivity is not niceness; it’s simply the unwillingness to build our community on shared scapegoating. The narrow way of Christ is not defined by our opinion about sexuality; it’s defined by our commitment to being perfected in love. The Wesleyan journey of perfection in love is where the true challenge is and where the glory of God can actually be tasted. I’m sure you’ve experienced some of this despite your fixation on other people’s sexuality. But there is no easier road than to conflate clinging to anti-secular ideology with the actual journey of cruciform discipleship. Wide is the path of those who conflate marrow-mindedness with the beautiful narrow way of Christ.

  • Rick says:

    “We will be publicly and regularly shamed at every turn.” I don’t need to tell you that some of us experienced this at 2019 Annual Conferences. It calls into question what we were told about the One Church Plan. “Let’s agree to disagree and respect that both views are honorable” is absolutely not what we heard. And yes I’m reconsidering my future with this denomination.

  • Cbuster says:

    Dr. Tennent, I have appreciated the clarity of the issues you presented pre-2019GC re: https://timothytennent.com/2019/01/31/one-church-plan-key-issues-to-think-about-before-you-vote/ and I recall your comment, “Once the church is prepared to relinquish the natural gender distinction established in creation, then no other boundary can possibly hold.”
    I sincerely hope you will present your considerations of the recent Bart-Jones Plan. It would appear to me that by developing multiple denominational ‘branches’ (different forms of ‘Progressive’ and “Global’ churches) in one UMC institution, the Methodists are simply accommodating theological pluralism and are disingenuously calling it ‘unity’.

  • First, I want to thank you for the courage God has granted you in speaking the truth in love. Thank you for your response to the open letter that was sent. Everyone should read your response. Thank you also for this article that once again speaks the truth of God’s Word. You are refreshing to the soul.