The "Untied" Methodist Church
By Wesley Putnam
At the close of General Conference 2004 in Pittsburgh, there was a moving resolution presented that affirmed the unity of the United Methodist Church. It passed with a stunning 95% majority. The unity resolution, introduced by the Rev. John Schol of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference and adopted May 7 read: “As United Methodists we remain in covenant with one another, even in the midst of disagreement, and affirm our commitment to work together for our common mission of making disciples throughout the world.” Everyone stood and embraced and sang a hymn as tears ran down many of their faces. It was a picture of hope. But, are things as they appear?
The truth is, we are far from united. There is a deep chasm that runs through the heart of United Methodism. That chasm was seen even as this resolution was presented. This unity was declared while Bishop Joseph Sprague was sitting in the chair. You might remember him as the bishop who wrote a book denying the basics of the Christian faith and who declared the same in a speech at Illif School of Theology. Among other things, Sprague has denied the virgin birth, the Deity of Christ, and His physical resurrection. Charges were brought against him, but the supervisory response team would not pursue them. The truth is that if Bishop Sprague can't be charged with heresy, one wonders if anyone could.
This unity was affirmed in front of deeply divided Council of Bishops who, in spite of that division, had just given tacit approval to a takeover of the floor of General Conference by non-delegate homosexual activists. (I wonder what would have happened if the NRA had requested permission to protest.) They then watched 29 of their number, perhaps half of whom are still active, stand in support of the activists and in opposition to the mandates in the Discipline regarding homosexual practice. The bishops who did not stand were silent regarding the inappropriate actions of their associates. They appear to be muzzled by an unwritten code of collegiality.
Hundreds of delegates who declared we are in covenant with one another had just the day before stood and/or marched with protestors who were demanding that gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered persons be appointed as pastors in the United Methodist Church. They even hijacked the liturgies, hymns, and sacraments of the church as they marched and sang behind symbols of baptism and a rainbow colored candle. They poured their baptismal water into the font in the conference worship area and left the candle on the altar table, where it stayed for the remainder of that day. Hundreds of others of us watched the same with anguish in our hearts. That afternoon when a delegate tried to express his sorrow at what had taken place, he was shouted down and was ruled “out of order” by the bishop. This is unity?
Our covenant in the United Methodist Church is based on our common commitment to Scripture, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and our doctrines as delineated in the historical documents of our church. Doctrine is a body of teaching agreed upon and used as a “plumb line” to measure truth. (Our doctrines are our Articles of Religion, our Confession of Faith, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, and Wesley’s notes on the NT.) There are three parties involved in making this covenant, the persons making the vow to one another, and God as the witness. We have chosen to bind ourselves together based on a common faith in Jesus Christ and His Word. Our covenant is the glue that holds us together. When the covenant is gone, all that is left to unite us is the "duct tape" of bureaucratic intimidation, and the trust clause, which assigns all property to the annual conference.
Every elder in the church answered important questions regarding these essentials when they were ordained. Here is a portion of the ordination service.
"So that we may know that you believe yourselves to be called by God and that you profess the Christian faith, we ask you: Do you believe that God has called you to the life and work of ordained ministry?
I do so believe.
Are you persuaded that the Holy Scriptures contain all truth required for eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ? And are you determined out of the same Holy Scriptures so to instruct the people committed to your charge that they may enter into eternal life?
I am persuaded and determined, by God's grace.
Will you give faithful diligence duly to minister the doctrine of Christ, the Sacraments, and the discipline of the Church, and in the spirit of Christ to defend the Church against all doctrine contrary to God's Word? (Emphasis mine)
I will so do, by the help of the Lord.
Will you be diligent in prayer, in the reading of the Holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of God and of his kingdom?
I will, the Lord being my helper.
These are serious and solemn vows that speak to the heart of our covenant. However, when Scripture is set aside for "new revelation," we have broken the covenant. When the deity of Christ is denied, there is no covenant. When the doctrines we are sworn to teach, defend, and uphold are either ignored or outright rejected, there is no covenant. When the "disagreements" are on such foundational issues, we are the Divided Methodist Church pretending to be united.
Unfortunately, many of our pastors continue to deny the basics of our faith. Many of our bishops are opposed to our stated doctrinal standards and the teachings of our Discipline. All too often, our seminaries support teaching that departs from our historical faith and are committed to "universalism" (all gods are equal), and relativism (all truth is equal). Instead of building Christian faith and sending out pastors who can faithfully proclaim the truth and shepherd the flock, they are producing social workers and societal engineers. Thankfully there are a few evangelicals in key positions in our seminaries, and the number seems to be increasing, because of the good work of AFTE (A Foundation for Theological Education). But, sadly, it will take many more years to see a major change in our official schools.
Many in the Western and Northeastern jurisdictions are particularly radical and are adherents to the belief in a "new revelation." They consider themselves to be "progressives" who have heard God saying a "new thing." They are obedient to what they believe God is saying today, even when it contradicts what He has clearly said in His Word. They are, at best, marginally tolerant of the evangelical witness, and at worst, hostile towards it. They persecute and trivialize those who refuse to fall in line with the current “new revelation” as being ignorant, intolerant, or religious bigots. In their view, scripture is important only in that it reminds us of where we came from. They do not consider it to be a guide for living our lives today. For them, doctrine is unimportant allegedly “because we are not a creedal church.” They believe doctrine is created by community discernment rather than by scriptural teachings or historical documents, and thus can change as culture changes. As you can see, this is totally at odds with the vows they made when they were ordained.
Most of those serving on the boards and agencies in the United Methodist Church are also in the "progressive" camp. The Board of Global Ministries would declare that sharing our faith with a person of another world religion is not missions, but proselytizing. As a result, our missionary force is at its lowest ebb in our history as a church. The Board of Church and Society lobbies for and promotes things that the majority of United Methodists would oppose. They are considered to be one of the most liberal lobbies on Capitol Hill. The national division of United Methodist Women promotes far left political and social agendas. Some of its members even marched this spring in Washington, DC, in support of abortion on demand. Much of the money they receive from well meaning UMW groups is used in ways those local groups would strongly disapprove of. The National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, both well known for their liberally radical political stands, are supported by our denomination through the interdenominational cooperation fund.
Now, let me say that these are not insincere people. They honestly believe they are the ones who are following Christ and being faithful to His Kingdom. They are convinced that they are listening to God and have discovered what He is saying to this generation. They believe that the church must speak in support of gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgendered persons as it did for the disenfranchised blacks during the civil rights era. They don’t understand that a moral wrong can’t be a civil right. They think history is on their side and that they are correcting an injustice. These are people who are absolutely committed to their cause and are willing to work and sacrifice in order to see it succeed. But, they see the conservatives as simple-minded, intolerant bigots and the conservatives see them as blatant, divisive heretics.
What hope is there for unity with this kind of division? On these issues, we are not dealing with just insignificant disagreements that we can ignore. It’s not a matter of “think and let think” and learning to get along. The problem is not that we don't understand one another, but that we do understand one another, and do not agree. There is no amount of debate or dialogue that will change that. This chasm is deep and wide. The differences are truly irreconcilable.
At a breakfast meeting at General Conference 2004, Bill Hinson, former pastor of FUMC Houston, called for an amicable separation. You can read the text of his speech
here. Schism would truly be a "last resort." It would take years to formulate a plan that could be agreed upon because the lines of division are not clean-cut. Although the progressive philosophy is strongest in the west and northeast, it certainly has pockets of support in every jurisdiction, conference, and local church. It would be the theological equivalent of a civil war. There is no way to measure how painful this kind of split would be. It would take years for local congregations to deal with the aftermath of such a cataclysmic event.
However, in many ways there has been an ongoing schism for over 30 years. We have lost the equivalent of a 200-member church every day for the past 30 years. With each public statement or act of rebellion from the “progressives,” more members leave. One of the largest denominations in the nation is, "We-Used-to-be-United Methodist." There undoubtedly would be many local congregations gone were it not for the risk of losing everything because of the trust clause. Many conservative churches are taking the words "United Methodist" off their signs because of the negative connotation it has to their target audience. Pastors hope their members won't read about the things going on in the national church for fear it will negatively impact membership and giving, but with the advent of the Internet and easy access to such news, they have to spend more and more time "putting out fires." The average age of United Methodists continues to rise as the young members move out. If the present trends continue, there will not be much of a church left in 20 years.
There are, however, some positive things to celebrate. The grassroots of Methodism continues to be strong, and is growing stronger. We are reaping a healthy harvest of new believers through the Emmaus movement, the Alpha program, Christian Believer, and Disciple Bible studies that have grown up across the years. Most of the people in the pew are very strong and orthodox in their faith. They hold to the authority of Scripture and still believe the doctrines and creeds of the church, foundational beliefs that are not negotiable if we are to call ourselves Christians. They desire to raise their children and grandchildren to follow Jesus Christ as Lord. They have no doubt that Jesus is who He claimed to be. His Deity, virgin birth, death, and resurrection are not up for debate. They do not question whether or not we should be calling people of all nations and world religions to follow Jesus, who alone is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."
Independent evangelical seminaries are educating a larger percentage of our pastors. As an example, one out of seven pastors actively serving in United Methodist pulpits are graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. This will have a strong impact on our clergy over time.
The move within the grassroots has impacted much of the legislation of General Conference, which has been steadily moving in an orthodox direction in line with our Discipline. There are several things that indicate that trend will continue. The new formula for choosing both delegates and appointments to boards and agencies is now based on membership in each jurisdiction. It is interesting to note that where progressive beliefs flourish, the church doesn’t. This is going to mean less of a voice for the more liberal jurisdictions and a stronger voice for the conservative ones. The statements regarding homosexual practice in the church have been made very clear. While we don't have good enforcement on these issues yet, those who rebel will no longer be able to hide behind the process. A definite change in direction is occurring. It will just take time. It’s been said, "You can't turn a ship around in a ditch.
In the meantime, what can we do?
- Be committed to earnest prayer for God's Spirit to lead us. As the Psalmist declared, “Unless the Lord builds a house, the work of the builders is useless.” (Psalm 127:1) God is our hope for the miracle of revival. Paul prayed, “Now to the one who can do infinitely more than all we can ask or imagine according to the power that is working among us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever! Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21) Pray that the fresh wind of the Holy Spirit will blow again across the United Methodist Church.
- Be intentional in ministry to the sexually broken. Evangelical Christians need to be the ones reaching out to those dealing with AIDS and help them find the grace of a loving, forgiving God. It is not enough to simply condemn the sin. We are called to offer the transforming love of Christ to all who need it. They need to know there is a way out of this destructive lifestyle. Homosexual and heterosexual brokenness is a problem in the life of the church. There are wonderful tools available to help in outreach to all who need to experience His cleansing and freedom. Many are surprised to know that the success rate for those who seek help with sexual addictions is higher than that for treating alcoholism. There are dozens of wonderful organizations like Exodus International, Pure Life Ministries, and Transforming Congregations that are committed to this ministry and are anxious to partner with churches.
- Work within the local church to inform the laity who are totally unaware of how serious the situation has become. If anything is going to change in the church, the laity must first become informed and then empowered to do something. One of the greatest enemies to renewal is ignorance. Although this is not the kind of information you splash across the entire congregation, it is vital that the leaders know what is happening. The people in key positions in the church need to be educated regarding the issues that face us.
- Become more involved in the political processes in the church. Make sure your church's delegates to Annual Conference understand what is at stake as they represent your congregation. Work hard to elect delegates to Jurisdictional or General Conference whose votes will be faithful to Scripture. Pray that God will give us bishops who will not be mouthpieces of a misdirected culture, but defenders of the "faith once delivered to the saints." This year there will be over 20 new bishops elected. If most of these are evangelical, it could mean a positive shift in the council of bishops.
- Get involved in the appointment process. The Staff Parish Relations Committee does have a say in who comes to your congregation. This may mean sitting down with the District Superintendent and a prospective pastor and asking some very pointed questions. It can no longer be assumed that just because a pastor is ordained, s/he can be trusted with the spiritual needs of your congregation.
- If persons in your church are called into ministry, steer them toward a seminary like Asbury or Fuller, where they will be trained from a biblical, orthodox perspective. If they choose to go to one of our United Methodist seminaries, direct them to the evangelical professors who can help ground them in the faith.
- Be responsible in your stewardship. This may mean taking a closer look at the way your apportionment monies are spent. Much of the agenda of the radical left is supported by the gifts from more conservative churches and conferences. The money is generally collected using the call to “denominational loyalty,” and “connectionalism.” Most United Methodists simply trust the system. Many an evangelical pastor pays apportionments even though some of the money goes to causes that are morally objectionable. H/She is intimidated into paying for fear of retribution by his/her bishop. Apportionments become the necessary fee for staying in an appointment. However, some churches have chosen to redirect their money to programs and missions that are more closely aligned with their beliefs. This has been a hard step taken by concerned laity in these churches. It has been an informed act of conscience, approached prayerfully and out of conviction, not out of spite or anger.
- Get involved with and pray for the organizations working for renewal and reform, such as the Confessing Movement, Mission Society for United Methodists, Aldersgate Renewal Ministries, and Good News.
- Pray that those who have chosen to take stands in opposition to Scripture and our Discipline will have the grace to change or to leave. Why would anyone want to stay in a denomination where they disagree on the basic statements of identity and purpose? Those who have pushed for over 30 years to shove this church off of her historic foundations should acknowledge they have failed to accomplish their goals and move on to a place where their beliefs are embraced.
John Wesley is often quoted, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.” We must remember he also said,
"These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us."
May God lead and direct us into a faithful and fruitful future.
Wesley Putnam, General Evangelist UMC
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