Dispelling Myths about the Future of MethodismJuly 28th, 2022
One of the privileges of my role as the President of Asbury Seminary is that I have the opportunity to travel all across the world and meet with a whole range of Methodist groups. It has given me some sense of the hopes, dreams, and even fears, of the “people called Methodist.” The United Methodist churches, in particular, are in a time of crisis and confusion due to the unfolding events dating back to October of 2013 when Bishop Talbot, a retired bishop from California, performed a same-sex marriage in Alabama, in defiance of both the Discipline and against the pleadings of the faithful bishop of the North Alabama Conference. We are now almost ten years into a state of ecclesial chaos due to a growing disregard for the official position of the United Methodist Church regarding human sexuality. The main driver of this state of chaos and confusion is a growing array of episcopal leaders who refuse to abide by their own ordination vows and openly support disobedience to the Discipline. Very soon it became apparent that it really didn’t matter what the outcome of any General Conference vote was regarding the issue, these bishops, and many pastors, were determined to defy the will of the Church. Fourteen consecutive General Conferences have upheld the orthodox, biblical view of human sexuality (13 regular General Conferences, plus the specially called Conference to “decide” the issue once and for all in February 2019).
In the wake of the 2019 General Conference it became increasingly clear that the Discipline was not going to be changed through legislative action, especially given the growing number of United Methodist churches in Africa who send increasing numbers of delegates to General Conference. The new “plan” was to simply defy the Discipline and caricature the traditionalists as unloving. The ensuing chaos eventually led to the unofficial agreement of 16 leaders on the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. This agreement, despite its noble intentions, gave the impression that the United Methodist Church had agreed to a separation which would involve the exit of the orthodox to form their own denomination, now known as the Global Methodist Church. However, the group which agreed to the Protocol was never authorized by the General Conference and several of the features of the Protocol have already been gutted by the Judicial Council as unconstitutional. Many articles and reports appeared in the wake of the Protocol agreement reinforcing the false idea that the UMC had agreed to separate. Christianity Today, CNN, and the New York Times, among others, published articles with headlines like this: Methodists Agree to Split Denomination (CT headline), United Methodist Church Proposes Historic Split over Gay Marriage and LGBT Clergy (CNN headline), and United Methodist Church Announces Plan to Split over Same-Sex Marriage (New York Times). This was the greatest “gift” the progressives could have hoped for. The orthodox agree to exit the denomination and the UMC would be free to keep the name “United Methodist” and extend its progressive agenda without the “every-four-year-headache” of suffering yet another bruising defeat on the floor of the General Conference. However, especially due to the endless COVID cancelling of General Conference in 2020 and 2022, it soon became apparent that the Protocol would never be passed and there was no sustained support for it among the progressives or among the African delegates. Why would the progressives agree to suspend the Trust Clause and give 25 million dollars to the traditionalists when, due to the sheer volume of exiting conservative churches, they could have the denomination without any special agreement at all? Why would they agree to relinquish the monetary value of the buildings and land which could be used to financially prop up the denominational machinery for decades? Why would the conservative African delegates get excited about a plan which would both strip away their denominational name as well as throw into jeopardy the financial support which is coming from the UMC denomination? So, here we are in 2022, awaiting yet another General Conference in 2024. It is time to dispel some of the common myths which continue to be circulated throughout the church.
Myth #1: The United Methodist Church has agreed to separate in 2024. The UMC has never agreed to any church-wide separation plan. Even the most ardent supporters of The Protocol now understand that it is no longer a viable piece of legislation. Furthermore, with the launch of the Global Methodist Church in May, many conservative churches have already exited the denomination. Thus, there is now a real possibility that the Discipline will be changed in 2024 to reflect an unbiblical and unorthodox position. It is almost inconceivable that any “grace filled” exit plan of any kind will be accepted by these new delegations. This will, in turn, precipitate even more exits from the denomination and endless fights over the Trust Clause, which will be played out in a wide variety of ways in conferences across the country. Even the growing African Methodist churches will unlikely be able to protect orthodoxy in the wider denomination given the number of conservative North American churches who will have exited the denomination by 2024 since orthodoxy was maintained only through the collective votes of the North American traditionalists and the global traditionalists. The progressives, always a minority among United Methodists globally, will have achieved their long-standing goal to officially bring the UMC in line with all the other dying mainline churches in North America. Even if the vote to defend historic orthodoxy prevails, it will only accelerate more widespread disobedience of the Discipline. In short, post-2024 will look and feel no different from how things stand today.
Myth #2: The Post-2024 United Methodist Church will be a “Big Tent” Methodism. One of the most persistent myths has been the idea that the progressives welcome a church with “diverse” voices and there will be joyous space given to the conservatives to stay in the denomination right alongside of those with progressive views. Quite apart from the glaring and obvious embrace of a post-modern view of truth this view entails, many so-called “moderates” were swayed by the argument. Indeed, this myth was the defining theme of the One Church Plan, which was so decisively voted down in 2019. However, the myth continues to be propagated at the highest levels. The hard reality is that there will be no welcome space for conservatives in a post-2024 UMC. Even now, evangelical pastors are being moved from their pulpits and progressive pastors are being placed in these churches. To put it bluntly, there is simply no viable space for many evangelical pastors in the United Methodist Church. The horrific national story about Mt. Bethel is just one example which has been playing out in less public ways all across the nation. Any conservative church in the UMC who believes that they can just “lay low” and keep the beloved pastor they have will be in for a rude awakening.
Myth #3: Episcopal leaders welcome open and frank conversations in the churches about the future of the denomination. One would expect that given the momentous changes taking place in the denomination there would be strong encouragement from the leadership of the churches (both pastors and episcopal leaders) for churches to meet, learn about what is happening and understand the complexities involved in following the myriad of differing disaffiliation procedures (approved by the Discipline and Conference action) which are being followed throughout the denomination at the conference level. Instead, there has been a concerted effort to prevent churches from meeting to discuss disaffiliation. This has led to considerable anger and frustration throughout the church. Information sharing, procedural and economic assessments (including building assets and unfunded pension commitments) and the precise timing of these decisions should be matters of open conversation in the churches. Bishops in various conferences have exhibited a wide array of interpretations of the disaffiliation procedure and many rank and file Methodists are feeling confused and yet are being told that they are not allowed to meet to even discuss their options.
Myth #4: Conservative UMC pastors must surrender their ordination credentials. Many pastors have been wrongly told that joining the WCA or even contemplating joining the Global Methodist Church requires that they surrender their credentials. This is not true. It is true that once a clergy member is officially received as a member of the Global Methodist Church or any other denomination, they must surrender their membership in their annual conference. But, the Discipline distinguishes between conference “membership” and “ordination.” No clergy should surrender their credentials unless they are vacating the ordained ministry.
It is not my role to counsel churches as to how they should proceed in this climate. However, I do believe that the above clarifications should help churches better understand and navigate the landscape which is before us all. It is important that all of us play the “long game.” There is little question in my mind that the conservative, traditionalist future of the United Methodist church has been dealt a near mortal blow. In the short run, we have lost our voice; we have lost our hope for renewal; we have lost our denomination. But, what we have not lost is the gospel of Jesus Christ. We have not lost the faithful biblical witness. We have not lost our connection to the global church here and around the world and back through time. In the long run, a hundred years hence, the world will have long forgotten the memory of this conflict. In the long run, a new birth of Methodist witness will have survived this crisis and thrived in other expressions in ways we can only now imagine. Our hope will be restored. Our love of Christ and His Word will prevail. The gospel will keep on being proclaimed until Christ returns. There is no progressive agenda, or General Conference vote which can curtail the onward march of the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus promised that He would build His Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. That was not a promise for the continuance of any particular denomination, but a promise that the true Church of Jesus Christ will flourish and be faithful until that glorious day when we will stand before him as the Bride of Christ and feast at his heavenly banquet. Let’s keep our eyes on that sure promise.
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