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How the West was LOST and How it can be RECLAIMED

By Robert L. Kuyper


When I came to the California-Nevada Annual Conference as a young pastor just out of seminary, I knew I was coming to one of the most liberal conferences in the church. In seminary I had been influenced by the civil rights movement, gay rights, and the sexual revolution. Like the pioneers before me, I wanted to abandon the old traditions that I found so stifling in the South.

Still, I was not prepared for what I found. I eagerly attended my first pastor's school at Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco. At the height of the sexual revolution with its ubiquitous hippies, San Francisco was the place to be. To educate the pastors, we were shown pornographic films featuring oral sex. I must confess that I eagerly absorbed this sexual freedom. My education continued after hours as older pastors took me out to some of the bars and strip joints for which San Francisco was famous. After all, this was my first trip to San Francisco.

Next, I was invited by the conference to attend a sexuality education event. It was intended to train us to present the information to the youth of our conference. Our first assignment was to visit a pornographic book store and to return with a cocktail napkin from a local strip joint. We were shown films of couples having sex, including homosexual sex between two men. We then presented all this to the youth of St. Mark's UM Church in Sacramento. (This is the church that is served today by the Rev. Don Fado who organized the homosexual union service.) Back then, the pastor was the Rev. Bob Moon, one of the liberal giants in our conference. His sermon was wonderful, a first person account of Jesus told as if he were Peter. However, one problem disturbed me even then he left out the resurrection!

There is another episode that remains vivid in my mind. At a district retreat for pastors and spouses, one pastor and his wife began to share about living in a commune and swapping spouses. It was not part of the planned program, but when they started sharing, no one, not even the district superintendent who was present, dared to be judgmental and say adultery was wrong. No one even named it as adultery that was just an old-fashioned, outmoded concept from an ancient Hebrew culture, not relevant in the modern West.

Set Up for Sexual Addiction

My conference made me a sex addict! Well, I must take some responsibility for my behavior, but in the midst of a sexual revolution in a sexually addicted society, the end result is not surprising. This is a sensitive subject. My wife stayed with me through it all. I know I did harm to some of the local churches I served, and I grieve over some of the youth that I know I influenced. I repent and, to some extent, still carry guilt with me today. I saw many of my friends ruin their marriages and their pastorates. Thank God that did not happen to me. I still feel today, looking back, that God was saving me from the fire for some special purpose.

Some years ago, Andy Comiskey of Desert Stream Ministries in southern California came to Bakersfield to do a workshop on sexual wholeness. As Andy led the participants in prayer for at least 30 minutes, I felt the Spirit working with a sin-sick soul. I know now that my desire for other women came from the wounding I had felt as a teenager when I doubted my masculinity. Getting my way with girls was one way of proving I was a man. When I started to meet ex-gay men, I realized we had this wounding in common. They just sought their masculinity in having sex with other men.

As Andy prayed that day, I felt God lifting that desire out of me. No longer did I see women as objects, but as people. It was a most pleasant transformation! I do not doubt the possibility of transformation. I know it can happen it happened to me!

It is different out here

The Western Jurisdiction is different. United Methodists moving to the West are hard pressed to find United Methodist churches like the ones back home. From Colorado to California, Washington to Arizona, the West was captured by the liberals some time ago. How did that happen?

Historically, the western part of the United States was settled by people with an independent streak. Immigrants came west to build a better society, a theme that has been constant in our history. Pioneers left old traditions behind. When I first came to California in 1968, one of the older ministers told me, "You think you see snow on the Sierras in the East. It's not snow, it's letters of transfer which never made it to California." Abandoning old traditions made it easy for these pioneers to come under the influence of liberalism.

Also, the west was known for its tolerance of sexual immorality. Lawlessness on the frontier bred a world of dance halls, saloons, gambling, and prostitution. Wide-open spaces let people do their own thing. If you did not like what your neighbor was doing, you just moved on.

These influences still affect the mainline churches in the west.

Impact Today

This heritage has made us what we are today, and I suspect that similar influences have been at work in the other Western Jurisdiction Conferences. First of all, many who were involved in heterosexual immorality are unable to take a stand on homosexual immorality. Many of the people involved in the leadership of the events I described earlier are still in leadership positions in our conference today. Without repentance and transformation, they cannot speak out against homosexual behavior. The danger is that this inability to call anything wrong leaves us without any moral foundation. If we cannot oppose adultery, how can we oppose incest and even pedophilia?

On the other hand, our conference has a great record of pioneering in the realm of civil rights. We boast of progress in many areas of affirmative action and rightly so. While focusing on our sexual problems, I should not give the impression that our conference has been a total disappointment. It has not. But our commitment to civil rights for racial minorities has blinded us to an entirely different problem in the area of homosexual behavior. Homosexuality is much more like alcoholism than race. Our conference has been slow to see that.

Can the West Change?

Given all this history, now we must ask ourselves the hard question, "Can the west change?" Is there hope for renewal, or should western evangelicals seek another organizational expression for their life together?

In order to answer this question, we must take two organizational factors into account: bishops and jurisdictions. Five geographical jurisdictions were established in 1939 as the northern and southern halves came back together after the split over slavery in 1844. The 1844 break came when General Conference ordered a southern bishop to sell a slave. Questions over the relationship between General Conference and the bishops brought about the split, not only the issue of slavery.

Bishops are elected and held accountable in jurisdictions. This was the price of union between the North and South. No Southerner would serve as bishop in the North or the other way around. But it left an independent Western Jurisdiction to be captured by the liberals. If charges are to be brought against a bishop, it will be brought to the Jurisdiction. The national Council of Bishops can say what they want, but Western Jurisdiction bishops can go home, knowing they will not be held accountable except by other liberal bishops.

This means that the issue of homosexual unions will likely be treated differently in various jurisdictions. What is unthinkable in the South will be the order of the day in the West. Many observers have noted that the UM Church is really five churches in the United States with several overseas branches. "Will the UM Church split?" is not the question. We are already splitting. "How far will the split go?" is the question.

What Can General Conference Do?

One should realize that General Conference is very institutionally conservative. This top legislative assembly in the UM Church meets only every four years. New ideas get referred for study to one of the Boards, which has a vested interest in protecting the institution. It can easily take a decade or more for the simplest changes in our structure to be made. Furthermore, General Conference can only act upon petitions submitted to them. This means that if no one is pressuring General Conference for a change, it is impossible for that change to be made. We should not expect General Conference to make drastic changes in our jurisdictional system.

Furthermore, General Conference has only two weeks to craft legislation. The pro-gay side has four years to find loopholes. In the area of homosexuality, this has been going on since 1972, resulting in increasing strictures against homosexual behavior. Opposing forces are gathering for what will likely be an explosive General Conference in Cleveland in 2000. But after the pieces are picked up, it is safe to say that the UM Church will look much like it does today.

The Accountability Solution

At least two alternatives are possible solutions, and they are not mutually exclusive. To bring accountability across jurisdictional lines, we will need a team of lawyers working immediately to revise The Book of Discipline, our basic rule book. Bishops should be tried by the Council of Bishops or some other national body. This could give the Council of Bishops some real teeth, not just moral persuasion as they hold one an other accountable.

Still, there are some serious questions to be asked. First, will the South, which holds most of the votes at General Conference, allow their bishops to be tried or even elected by the whole church? Remember the jurisdictions were established to keep the South separate. Another question, will the South continue to be upset by homosexual unions in other sections of the country?

A great uproar ensued over the Creech trial. Will that outrage continue as dissidents in the West continue to perform homosexual unions?

And I have a second concern. Law does not transform. Our legal battles are turning us into an increasingly legalistic denomination. The Judicial Council is assuming a greater role as legalities need interpretation. Now we face questions in our conference as to whether or not 69 pastors can be tried together or separately. Is being a "co-officiant" at the service the same thing as "conducting" a homosexual union? How do you define "conduct"? The participants were only blessed; they did not exchange vows as in a heterosexual wedding. Was that a homosexual union service?

We run the danger of becoming pharisaical. I fear the experience of the Southern Baptists as they drove out "liberals" on the infallibility of the Scriptures. Legalism does not deal well with homosexuality and sexual sin. Little transformation happens.

The Big Tent Solution

The big tent solution has been suggested by Lyle Schaller and others. In the Circuit Rider article, "Is Schism the Next Step?" (September/October 1998) Schaller pointed out that our hierarchical appointive system was in conflict with our informal policy of pluralism. He suggested a variety of annual conferences, both geographical and based on special interests, to widen our tent.

There is Scriptural justification for such a policy. Faced with the new Christian movement, a wise Rabbi Gamaliel told the Jewish council, "Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God" (Acts 5:38-39). Jesus tells the parable of the wheat and the tares in which the master says, "Let both grow together until the harvest" (Matthew 13:30). Finally the disciples are told, "I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 18:18). I have always taken this as per mission given to the Church to make mistakes. As in the case of the wheat and the tares, both reconciling and transforming conferences can be allowed to exist. The final harvest will tell the difference.

The big tent solution would allow different conferences to follow different paths. Those that were of God would grow. Those that were not would die.

A Western Jurisdictional Evangelical Conference

One of the conferences in our expanded big tent would be a missionary conference formed for evangelical pastors and churches, a conference that has as its goal to conform to the United Methodist doctrine and Discipline. The process for beginning a missionary conference is laid out in Paragraphs 558-561 in the Discipline. One begins as a missionary conference, grows to become first a provisional conference and then a full conference.

Alaska is such a missionary conference organized to meet the needs of a large area with relatively few people who cannot support a full annual conference. Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference is organized to meet the needs of an ethnic minority. The Rio Grande Conference in Texas is a full conference, but is also an example of a conference that spreads over a wide geographic area crossing several other annual conference boundaries.

There would be many advantages of having a Western Evangelical Missionary Conference. In this conference, evangelicals would have control over the ordination process. Candidates for ministry would no longer be victims of the political warfare that infects our conferences, but instead could simply be judged on their gifts and graces for ministry. Today evangelical women pastors need to hide their theology to get ordained, often resulting in their appointment to liberal churches that cannot tolerate their preaching. An evangelical conference would end this persecution of evangelical women.

District superintendents would be evangelical. Currently Alaska has one district and about 30 churches. The Oklahoma Indian and the Rio Grande Conferences both have four districts and around 100 churches. A Western Jurisdiction Evangelical Conference would begin with one or more districts. The leadership would be evangelical; the programming would be evangelical. At present, evangelical churches are barely tolerated.

The new conference would also be able to send delegates to General Conference and to the Jurisdictional Conference. We would have a voice in the selection of new Bishops. Evangelicals would have experiences as district superintendents, making them more likely to get elected. That voice would be small at first, but as the conference grew, the voice would grow.

The Discipline Calls for financial resources from the Board of Global Ministries to help new conferences. A larger number of churches, even though spread across the West, would make appointments easier. Our modern technology of faxes and e-mail can bridge the distances. A missionary conference would make it easy for evangelical pastors from the East to be "missionaries" for a season in the West to help reclaim this area for Wesleyan theology.

Once a missionary conference is created by General Conference in 2000, the Discipline already provides for a church to transfer conferences (see Para. 39) by a two-thirds vote of the church and both conferences. Pastors can transfer conferences.

Conclusions

Once the circuit riders went West to claim this area for Scriptural holiness. There was a time when we were building a new church a day. My church was started in 1893 with a $500 donation from someone back east who had a vision to expand Methodism in the West. Obviously $500 went a lot further then than now!

I would issue the call for a missionary conference in the West to bring back Wesleyan theology and doctrine. If it is of God, it cannot be stopped.


Robert L. Kuyper is the editor of the Transforming Congregations newsletter, where this article first appeared. He is the pastor of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California. This article is adapted from an address given to the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship of the California-Nevada Annual Conference.

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