Now that 2021 has finally arrived, we can begin to turn our attention, once again, to the momentous season which will likely unfold in 2021 in the United Methodist Church. This year will almost certainly be the year that the United Methodist denomination agrees to some kind of separation agreement, known as the Protocol. Millions of United Methodist Church members from across all conferences around the world will exit the denomination over the next few years to join new or existing movements. After all is said and done, the Protocol is achieving what fourteen consecutive General Conference votes (1972 to present) could not; namely, finding some way to get the traditionalists to exit the denomination. It has been a bit like a chess match. The traditionalists and the progressives have been playing a game of ecclesial chess for fifty years, each trying to out-maneuver the other and reach a checkmate where the opposing side would lay down the fight, admit defeat, and move on to other challenges we face as a denomination. In 2019, the traditionalists thought they had achieved a final and decisive resolution. Four hundred sixty-one voted yes for the Traditional Plan (56.22%), whereas only 359 voted no (43.78%). This, one must remember, was at a specially called General Conference dedicated to finally resolving our dispute. However, the progressives refused to accept the outcome of the vote. The vote did not matter. The bottom line was that the outcome was not the one many of our episcopal leaders hoped for, so it was not accepted.
Over the next year, the Protocol was formed and within a few months a new agreement was reached, which endorses—surprise, surprise—the orthodox exiting the denomination and the progressives being given the United Methodist Church. Back to the chess analogy: despite fourteen straight General Conference votes on the matter of human sexuality, we are now finding ourselves checkmated and shown the door. Doctor Tom Berlin, as it turned out, was prophetic when he declared at the 2019 General Conference that those who hold to the traditional view were like a “virus” which must be expelled from the body. Doctor Berlin could not have known then that an actual virus was about to be unleashed on the world. But he did make it crystal clear to the traditionalists that the only hope for the survival of orthodoxy was for us to be expelled from the body of United Methodism. In short, our future lies in our embracing the checkmate.
This is where the gospel does its greatest work. It is only by embracing the loss of the United Methodist Church that we can receive something reborn. It is only by embracing the checkmate that we can experience a resurrection; a new movement which fully embodies historic faith, Wesleyan identity, and biblical integrity. This is the opportunity which is before us in 2021. The year 2021 is the year we turn from decades of trying to save the United Methodist church to the even more daunting challenge of building a completely new Wesleyan movement. We are so familiar with the old struggles, it will likely be years before we fully realize the new struggles that we will need to face with equal resolve, faith, and courage. But, this is the year when the new denomination will be born. Our struggle has never been about human sexuality. Our struggle has never been about the precise language in the Book of Discipline. Those have only served as the presenting problem. Our struggles have always been about Christology (Who is Jesus Christ?), soteriology (Do we have a saving message for a lost world?), and divine revelation (Is the Bible divinely inspired, the message of which is binding on the very identity, doctrine, and preaching of the church?). Hopefully, over the next decade, millions of former United Methodists will join with millions of newly justified and Spirit-filled Christians who have no background with the United Methodist Church or any knowledge of these struggles, to together focus on the spiritual renewal of our nation and the world. There is a huge storm about to break over not just the “people called Methodists” but the “people called Christian” in this nation. We must prepare for the full onslaught of the world’s antipathy toward Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel, and the faithful remnant (in whatever denomination they may belong to) are always in the crosshairs. We will not have much time to come together and prepare for the coming assault on all that we hold dear. So, let’s embrace the checkmate, thanking God for all that we have learned in these many years of struggle and prepare for the real struggle that is before us as the people of God. It will be a struggle framed by the nature of truth, the Christian view of the body/human personhood, and the limits of religious liberty. It will require full surrender and sanctification before God if we are to remain faithful in this hour.
Martin Luther famously said that “the Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” In the same way, the time for user friendly Christianity with simplistic slogans, cheap grace, and no demands is passed. We must redouble our efforts to build strong, faithful Christians. During the Diocletian persecution (303–311 AD) the Christians who were prepared to compromise their faith rather than be thrown to the lions would say, “It’s only a pinch of incense . . . nothing worth dying for.” But the pinch of incense was the acknowledgment that Caesar was Lord, rather than Jesus. The whole future of the church, quite frankly, came down to a pinch of incense. 2021 must be the year when we remind our faithful flocks afresh of this history as we prepare for what lies ahead.