Thoughts As the United Methodist Church Prepares for General Conference 2020June 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.” 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.
 Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.
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