UMC Churches and Disaffiliation

This is a momentous time for thousands of United Methodist Churches across the world who are contemplating disaffiliating from an increasingly wayward denomination. Faithful churches have worked tirelessly for decades to prevent the demise of historic faith in the United Methodist Church. Despite the fact that those committed to historic faith have been victorious in 14 consecutive General Conference votes, these churches find themselves in an untenable situation because our episcopal leaders are not committed to upholding the current Discipline of the Church.  Flagrant examples of public statements from UMC pastors and bishops which defy the clear teaching of Scripture and historic views of Christ happen daily and nothing is done. It is no longer shocking for a UMC pastor or bishop to declare that Christ may have been a great teacher, but is not the Son of God, or that he only “rose” in the teachings of the church, or that St. Paul was misguided in many of his teachings, etc…  Questions about the biblical view of marriage or gender reassignment were only the “presenting” issues which garnered quite a bit of attention.  However, the struggle with the United Methodist hierarchy has always been about the authority of scripture, the parameters of historic faith, and Christology. Those who cannot accept the historic Christian teachings about Christ and the clear language of the Discipline should be the ones exiting the denomination. Instead, conservative churches are being forced (in the face of such widespread defiance of Scripture) to discuss and debate disaffiliation according to the provision of paragraph 2553 of the Discipline.

Every church should carefully discern what is the right thing to do. I have lived long enough to observe the break-up and “disaffiliation” process in several other denominations, including the American Baptist Church (ABC), the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA). What occurred in all of these denominations is that despite thousands of churches exiting those mainline denominations to form new ones, many choose to stay and be faithful witnesses within their existing denomination. There were two basic arguments which kept them inside their denomination. The first, was that we should take the ‘long view’ and not be so quick to walk out the door, but to stay on in the struggle and within a few generations the church always manages to renew itself and these wayward denominations will someday return to the very orthodox faith that they now despise. The second argument was the “keep-your-head-down” view. This view argued that, despite the waywardness of the denomination, they could remain faithful and keep preaching the gospel and keep believing the Bible within their own local church and just avoid all national church politics or whatever is going on at the denominational level. They loved their current pastor and, when he or she retired, they could select another faithful pastor. Thus, their local church acts as a kind of ongoing “dissent” movement within a denomination by keeping their head down and basically ignoring whatever is going on outside their own congregation.

I am sure that many conservative evangelical UMC churches might be considering staying inside the UMC for the same reason their friends from other denominations did years ago.  However, it must be said that there are some important differences between the UMC situation and these other denominations who went before us. First, the UMC is on a more serious trajectory away from historic faith than those denominations which have gone before us.  The Episcopal Church, because of its liturgy and its commitment to the Eucharist, has certain limits beyond which it is unlikely to drift. The history of Presbyterianism and Baptist churches are more firmly rooted in the Reformation which acts as a kind of historic rock which tethers these denominations to core doctrines. The UMC is mostly non-liturgical and has always struggled with its relationship to the Reformation. To exacerbate this problem, the UMC prizes itself on being a “non-confessional” church, which means that there is no received doctrinal deposit that can even remotely compare to, for example, the Westminster Confession in the Presbyterian world.  Thus, UMC churches can drift doctrinally faster and farther than other denominations.  This is precisely what we have witnessed, especially in the last decade.  Second, the polity of the UMC makes it impossible for a church to “keep its head down.”  In the UMC, unlike the other mainline denominations, the local church really has no authority on which pastor is sent to them.  You may be thrilled with your pastor today, but when that pastor retires or is moved to another pulpit, you will be subject to an appointment by a pastor who will likely not share your convictions regarding historic faith, the Scriptures or Christology. In fact, if the last three years has taught us anything, it is that superintendents and bishops are going out of their way to make sure that progressive pastors are being assigned to conservative churches. This kind of disruption could not structurally happen in Baptist, Episcopal or Presbyterian churches because congregational, presbytery or diocesan forms of polity give significant authority and voice to the local church in the pastoral selection process. A local UMC church is very vulnerable to an unfavorable appointment in ways which would be unthinkable in almost any other denomination.

The recent election of all progressive bishops in the South Eastern Jurisdiction of the UMC has sent a huge signal (despite all the rhetoric) that the future UMC will not be a “big tent” where there is an embracing, accepting place for everyone.  The future of the UMC is progressive and increasingly radical. The current group who claims to be the “middle” will, post 2024, become the new “right wing” and will quickly start experiencing what the evangelicals have experienced over the last forty years.  In time there will not be a safe space for either historic evangelicals or “moderate” progressives.

I am not advocating that every UMC church should disaffiliate. There may be other reasons for remaining within the UMC which has gained traction in your particular context.  Perhaps you are fearful of a church divide or some other messy outcome. Those are serious considerations. What I am saying is that if you choose to not disaffiliate, the pathway forward is steeper and narrower than you may have imagined.


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