This article is about the Free Methodist Church, not the United Methodist Church. For those who may not know your brothers and sisters in the larger Wesleyan family, the Free Methodist church traces its history back to 1860. It was founded out of the mainline Methodist Church (then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church) for several reasons. First, they rightly felt that the Methodist Church was drifting from the distinctive doctrines of the Wesleys and the early Methodists. Second, the word free in the phrase “Free Methodist” had multiple connotations. It meant free in the sense that they were anti-slavery. The Free Methodist church was born in the soil of abolitionism. The word free also meant that no pews could be rented, reserved, or sold. This meant that every pew was open to anyone who might come into the church (this is a vitally important point to remember as you will see). The word free also meant freedom from episcopal abuse. Bishops were using their ecclesial power to disrupt faithful churches, make unwanted appointments, expel members, and even seize the property of churches. (Sound familiar, UMC?) The Free Methodist Church does have bishops, but the bishops have important checks on their power to prevent abuse. The Free Methodist Church should be better known by all evangelical faithful United Methodists. To this day the Free Methodist Church remains largely faithful to historic and evangelical faith and far more articulate about distinctive Wesleyan doctrines than the mainline UMC.
The Free Methodist Church has a number of schools that they have founded to provide training. One of these is Seattle Pacific University. SPC has held to historic Christian doctrines, including a firm belief in the historic view of marriage between one man and one woman that has been affirmed by Christians since the first century and continues to be held by Christians around the world. (The few mainline churches who have tried to take the sin of homosexual practice and make it into a church sacrament represent a tiny, tiny fraction of the global church.)
However, Seattle Pacific was not sufficiently careful in vetting their faculty and, over time, the majority of the faculty of SPU have begun to embrace these new ideas about marriage and, in turn, had an enormous influence on students who attended this Free Methodist university. Eventually, people began to demand that the school change its position on marriage, conforming it to the view of the wider, increasingly secular, culture. The trustees met and deliberated on the statement and voted, quite rightly, to not change the ethos statement, but to stand firm in their convictions regarding the biblical teaching concerning marriage. When this was announced there was considerable student unrest and eventually a group of students made their way outside the home of the president of Seattle Pacific University to stage a protest. If you have been following this story you will, of course, not be surprised by student protests. As a rule, I love student protests and I believe they often cause us to think better and live better. But, occasionally, protesting students are led astray and badly misunderstand the point at hand. This was never truer than with the students who protested at SPU. I say this because of what they chose to write with chalk on the front steps of the president’s home. They wrote, “All people are created in the image of God.” Now, this is a great and important affirmation. I couldn’t agree with it more! But I can assure you that it has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the issue before the trustees of Seattle Pacific University. The debate is about the normalization of same-sex practice in the church. The debate is about the biblical definition of marriage. The debate is about what the church teaches about the other letters in the LGBTQ+ lineup (i.e., bisexuality, transgenderism, queer identity, and don’t forget the “plus,” which includes a range of things from intersexuality to asexuality.)
False teachers across the country are asking the church to include all of these practices as normative, biblical, and holy. However, this debate has nothing whatsoever to do with our shared belief that all people are created in the image of God. If, for example, someone in the church committed adultery, the church would, quite rightly, declare that this practice was “incompatible with Christian faith” but no one would ever even think that an adulterer might not be created in the image of God. Opposing same-sex practice in the church, or raising questions about how bisexual men and women could serve in ordained ministry, or the wisdom of the church endorsing youth taking hormones to change their gender, and so forth, may be hotly debated, but it has nothing to do with anyone not being created in the image of God. Absolutely nothing. Yet, I have regularly found that those who propose the novel doctrines regularly try to make the issue about something else. Rather than attempting to defend their actual views on any biblical, historical, or exegetical grounds, they just make it about something else.
For the United Methodist who may be reading this article, you will recall the very contentious General Conference in 2016 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. The church had gathered to debate the normalization of LGBTQ+ practices in the church. Each day I walked past protestors holding signs to support changes to the UMC Discipline. However, these were the signs which I noted outside: “God’s doors are open to all” and “Jesus didn’t turn people away, neither should we.” Others said, “Our transgender children have heartbeats” and “God loves LGBT+ people and so do we.” Even though I have opposed the normalization of LGBTQ+ practices in the church, I found myself in agreement with every sign outside the Portland Convention Center. The opposition to same-sex marriage is a multi-layered issue, but, as far as I can see, has nothing to do with our universal embrace of all people, their warm welcome in the church, their having heartbeats, or being the recipients of God’s love. All those things should be true for all people. But none of those things addresses the issue which is actually before the church.
So, while I applaud the young people’s sense of activism at Seattle Pacific, it might help the church debate if they could learn what the debate is actually about. Writing in chalk, “All people are created in the image of God” states what we all already believe. Think again, then write. Perhaps we can get a bit closer to an actual discussion of these issues in the church.