Embracing the Checkmate in Our Fifty-Year Struggle in the United Methodist Church

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.

The Glide Memorial Story

The Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco was the largest Methodist Church in the California-Nevada Conference. From 1964 to 2000, the church was led by Rev. Cecil Williams, who removed the cross from the sanctuary, stopped all celebrations of the Eucharist, and baptized people not in the name of the triune God, but in the “name of the people.” The church was reoriented to become a multi-faith center to provide assistance to the needy and to support various progressive causes. One of the most notorious moments in the life of the church was in January 1977 when Glide Memorial awarded Jim Jones the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. Jim Jones would later become a household name after he led a mass suicide of 918 members of his church (including 304 children) in Jonestown, Guyana. It is also noteworthy that Rev. Karen Oliveto, the first lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church, was the pastor of Glide Memorial before she became the bishop of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church in 2016. Glide Memorial sought to leave the United Methodist Church in 2018 and would not accept various attempts for United Methodist pastors to be appointed. The last several years have been tied up in a legal battle over the substantial Glide Trust and the building. It has now been resolved that the Glide Trust will be given to the California-Nevada Annual Conference to support the work of the United Methodist Church.

But, it is important that we remember the story behind this story. In other words, it is important for those who have been following this story in recent years to remember the original intention and founding of the Glide Memorial Church. In 1929, J. C. McPheeters published a book titled Sons of God, which was read by Lizzie Glide and inspired her to use her late husband’s wealth (beef and stock business) for the expansion of the kingdom of God. Her dream was to create an evangelical, evangelistic center in the heart of the city. It included a preaching hall, six-story apartment complex, and a restaurant. The preaching hall eventually became the sanctuary of Glide Memorial and J. C. McPheeters became the founding pastor. Over the next eighteen years, countless people were served through his ministry and the church grew to more than 3,600 members! Sixty percent of the members came on first time profession of faith. One of those who came to Christ was a young sailor named Ed Robb Jr., who would go on to be a great Methodist evangelist and start AFTE, a fund used to support doctoral students who are committed to evangelical faith. Ed Robb Jr.’s son, Ed Rob III, is currently the founder and senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church north of Houston.

Elizabeth Glide was also friends with H. C. Morrison, the founder of Asbury Theological Seminary. She encouraged J. C. McPheeters to invite him to preach at Glide Memorial. H. C. Morrison went to San Francisco on five occasions and preached at Glide Memorial. It was there that J. C. McPheeters first met H. C. Morrison. H. C. Morrison eventually invited J. C. Mcpheeters to become the editor of the Herald magazine, which is still the official magazine of Asbury Theological Seminary. Their relationship grew so strong that eventually H. C. Morrison (and the Board of Trustees) invited J. C. McPheeters to become the successor to H. C. Morrison by becoming the second president of Asbury Theological Seminary. McPheeters would serve as president at Asbury from 1942–1962. For six of those years, McPheeters continued to serve as senior pastor of Glide Memorial as well as president of Asbury Seminary! This background is important because it underscores the importance of remembering donor intent. In donor relations is it vital that any recipient of a gift honor the original purpose of the gift. The purpose of the Glide Trust was to create an evangelistic training center in the heart of San Francisco. Lizzie Glide was deeply committed to historic faith and was at the heart of the holiness movement. May we never forget her heart and how she intended for her money to be used. Now that the United Methodist Church has regained control of most of the Glide Trust, may they remember afresh the purpose for which that money was originally given.

Epiphany Is Here!

Epiphany is January 6th. It is one of the few fixed days in the life of the church (along with Christmas). It always falls on January 6th. Epiphany doesn’t receive quite the attention as other seasons do, like Lent or Advent, so perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect on the meaning of the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” and refers to the public manifestation of Jesus to the world when he begins his public ministry. This is the season where we mark all of the great acts of his public ministry, beginning with his baptism and continuing through to the transfiguration. The baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration of Jesus are like bookends, accentuating the truth that Jesus Christ is the pivotal event—the pivotal person—in the history of the world.

His baptism is the marker that this man, standing in the Jordan River, is the one true Israelite, who alone embodies righteousness and who alone has fulfilled the Law. You will recall that God began by electing Israel out of all the nations of the world. However, Israel proved unfaithful and fell into idolatry and unbelief. So God raised up a remnant within Israel who were called to be faithful and to keep the covenant. But they, too, were disobedient and failed to keep the covenant. It all came down to one Israelite, Jesus Christ, who was the spotless Lamb of God.

His transfiguration is the marker at the end of his ministry when Jesus fulfills all the hopes and expectations of the old covenant. Moses and Elijah appear at the transfiguration as the symbolic head of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), solidifying Jesus as the fulfillment of all the expectations and hopes of the ages.

What a great reminder to us as we start 2021, which promises to be one of the most disruptive years of our lives. We are facing an important political shift from a Trumpian version of Republicanism to a more socialistic version of the Democratic party. 2021 will bring us the transition from the tragedy of COVID-19 to the post-pandemic long-term impact of the social, economic, and psychological toll of the pandemic, which we are only beginning to understand. 2021 will also be the year that the United Methodist Church agrees to some form of a separation agreement.

Whatever we face in 2021 and beyond, let us not forget that sole figure standing in the Jordan River. The one who will someday be transfigured. The one who will someday be crucified. The one who will someday rise, ascend, and be seated at the right hand of the Father to judge the world. The one “desire of all nations.” Let us keep our eyes fixed on him. He is the Light of the World. That is the message of Epiphany.