A Letter to my United Methodist Friends
A Letter to my UM Friends
A while ago I approached some United Methodist friends, who are leaders in the movement to change the Book of Discipline’s stance on sexuality. I asked each one a series of questions, and simply listened. After processing what they told me, this is my response.
Thank you for taking the time to patiently answer my questions about your stance regarding sexuality and the United Methodist Church. I knew where you stood on the issue, but I wanted to be sure I understood why you hold the position you do.
I have thought a lot about what you told me, and I considered a few options as to how I might respond.
I first considered writing a rebuttal that articulated my position. I believe it to be God-honoring, grace-laced, theologically coherent and the best hope for the future of our church. But there is no point in that. It wouldn’t change your mind, and I am not anxious to be defined by what I’m against.
Another response option was to identify and elaborate on all the points on which we agree. There are many. But again, that would accomplish little. Our points of agreement will not eliminate the implications of the difference in our perspectives.
Not responding didn’t feel right, either.
So in the end, I have decided to share with you the conclusion I reached after thinking about what you told me: I count you as brothers and sisters in Christ, but I doubt we will be part of the same denomination some years from now. And that is OK. Really it is.
Let me explain.
The UMC’s conversations about sexuality are greatly complicated by our confusing Christian unity with denominational unity and identity. Because we do not distinguish between the two, we have a very hard time drawing lines appropriately.
Bishop and former seminary professor Scott Jones teaches that denominational unity is a by-product of three elements: our doctrine, our discipline and our mission.
Perhaps Christian unity simply depends on simply affirming that “Jesus is Lord.” But denominational unity and identity
The issue of homosexuality is often difficult for people to work through because each side’s position is a natural outgrowth of their core theology, and those theologies differ. Since we start from different assumptions, we arrive at different conclusions.
As I listened to your answers to my questions, I realized that we differed significantly in our understanding of the nature of sin, redemption, biblical authority and of the Gospel.
These are not small matters.
Christians do not have to believe alike about all things, but unity within a denomination does require certain amount of shared doctrinal understanding. As United Methodists we have long sought to avoid defining essential doctrine, and the result is that we cannot address an issue of sexuality with one mind.
Members of a functional denomination share agreement on polity and on the basics of how to carry out ministry. In contrast, many members of our church do not agree on the validity of our Book of Discipline.
To put it bluntly: if we can’t agree on whom we will marry or whom should be ordained, are we really one denomination?
Our mission as currently practiced is not a source of division, but neither is it a source of unique identity or unity.
The stated mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is a broad statement that most Christian churches could agree on; it is not uniquely United Methodist.
The word “mission” as used by most United Methodists translates as social action and public service. Again, there is nothing wrong with these things, but it does not set us apart from many other Christian bodies who do the same things.
So, the issue of homosexuality is rocking our church because we do not have enough unity of doctrine, discipline or mission to allow us to define a shared United Methodist identity.
The result is that we get confused because some Christians do not agree with our stance on sexuality, and we assume the task is to figure out a way for all to live under the UM umbrella. That is not possible, desirable or even consistent with our practice in other areas.
For example, last year at a clergy retreat, our Bishop shared that our Board of Ordained Ministry turned down a candidate because he didn’t believe in baptizing infants, only those who could profess faith for themselves. The Bishop emphasized that this was not the theology of the United Methodist Church, and that no one could be ordained by us while holding to that view.
My colleagues in the room were not shocked or disturbed by the Bishop’s statement. No one stood to argue that this is a justice issue and that there should be “a seat at the table” for everyone, regardless of their stance on baptismal procedures. No one stood to protest that we were violating the core value of inclusion, or that we were ignoring this man’s gifts for ministry.
The reason no one protested is because everyone accepts the fact that United Methodist theology leads us to baptize infants, and that those who believe in baptizing only adults should join the Baptist Church.
Everyone in the room knew that we are not saying that those who don’t baptize infants are not Christians, we are simply saying they are not United Methodists. And that is fine. Christians can disagree with one another about baptismal theology and still be part of the Body of Christ; they just might not be part of the same denomination.
Likewise, Christians may disagree on whether non-celibate homosexuals can be pastors, but they may not be able to be part of the same denomination.
Denominations are subsets of the universal body of Christ, and those subsets are defined by drawing lines. That definition creates a denominational identity and allows people to recognize where they belong.
When we draw lines around insignificant matters, we become divisive. But both sides today agree that the issue of sexuality is not insignificant because our disagreement stems from core doctrinal and disciplinary differences.
We cannot bring denominational unity by avoiding definition. We will not become more unified by declaring that each church or Conference or Jurisdiction will make their own determination on ordination and marriage, because that doesn’t solve the root problem of our differences: the doctrine or discipline which leads to unity. (And it merely produces many smaller-scale divisions, as those within each conference or jurisdiction decide what to do when their group decides in a direction they cannot support.) To say “we are not of one mind” may be self-evident, but it will not help us function as a denomination.
Attempting to avoid drawing a line will cause our denominational identity to dissolve into a watered-down version of universal Christian unity.
Instead, let us celebrate both the unity of all Christians and the uniqueness of individual denominational groups.
The reason I earlier said it is OK if we do not belong to the same denomination is that ten thousand years from now, it won’t matter to which denomination we belonged.
In the end, I wonder if we care a lot more about preserving the current structure of the United Methodist Church than God does.
Of course, God infinitely cares about people called United Methodists, but I’m just not sure God cares as much about the structure called United Methodism.
Heck, not even John Wesley cared whether Methodism would continue to exist.
“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
Very good article. Post GC2019 I feel the same within my UMC congregation as I do outside of it. I feel that my viewpoints need to be squelched, as they are not “politically correct “. My pastor is progressive and the congregation, as a whole, is progressive. Over the past month there has been no balance. There has been no acknowledgement that we are all one body and that we just happen to have different theological beliefs that help balance the local church. I keep reading from the liberals that conservative Christ followers are ignorant and not educated in the sciences. I have a BS and MS degree, as well as a doctoral degree. Do I not also have the ability to discern where the Holy Spirit is calling me?
My pastor sounds angry when she preaches,which is different than before. I feel that the One Church Plan and the Simple Plan would have required each congregation to vote to see if they would allow pastors to marry homosexuals in the church or whether the congregation would accept an LGBTQIA+ pastor to be assigned. That would have spit those congregations, so I do think it was best that the vote took place at the GC. Where does the individual go who is not in accord with their local congregation? There is already schism, but it will take several years for new congrations to form.
Sheryl, we are in the same position. Our liberal pastors, after GC, doubled down on the issue and have made pretty clear that those who hold to a biblical sexual ethic have caused harm and are cruel. We are, sadly and heartbrokenly, separating from our church home of 25 years.
So well put.
Thank you for a concise explanation about Christian unity vs denominational unity. That lack of understanding in the leadership of the UMC has frustrated me. Their misapplication of a Wesleyan understanding of the catholic spirit is a result of the confusion between Christian and denominational unity.
And Sheryl, I am pretty much in the same boat as you. Truthfully, I am no longer sure where my long time local church stands because a badly handled rush down a rabbit trail of relevancy several years back pretty much dismantled the church for me. Also, as a traditionalist who was formed as such within the Methodist Church, I am tired of being viewed as some backwater buffoon. I still go to my longtime local church on Sunday mornings mainly to keep peace with the people I have known for a long time. But where I have found the greatest satisfaction is discovering an historic understanding of Christianity via books and the internet–I was in possession of a lot of jumbled info but nothing made sense until I stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it. I also read John Wesley for myself and have developed an affinity for and with him. I also stumbled into seedbed.com shortly after it was launched and the Daily Text has become my nudge to continue going deeper with God. Most recently, I have added E. Stanley Jones book “Abundant Living”–it is doing a good job of pulling things together for me in a very practical and direct way. The way I sum up my spiritual life was that I had way too much church and not near enough of Jesus.
I have a master’s degree and spent 20 years in scientific research; I have a pretty good idea of its strengths and weaknesses. Early on, while I was still in graduate school, my major professor–who was very much my senior–told me that she had reached the conclusion that all the incessant research was the result of Eve eating the apple. Although she and I both continued in it and derived satisfaction from delving into God’s creation, I never forgot what she said. I finally stepped away from it and have never looked back.
And in light of what you have shared, it puzzles me that we have not recognized that we can’t respond to these areas and haven’t considered (since the Federal Judiciary has redefined “marriage” in our culture) that we need to be able to respond to that by clearly and intentionally bringing into the life of United Methodism, a theologically grounded understanding of “marriage” that marries a clergy person to what God is doing when lives are joined before God and under the witness of a congregation. Since 2015, the Book of Discipline declaration has been opposed to the Federal government yet we have done no thing to establish grounds of faith for standing in that opposition. We shed forth no light into the world on this subject. And this – along with other areas – remain unaddressed among us for the sake of the world that is our parish. Now my remarks would and will be responded to from sidedness. Instead of being “sided,” I ask what is God’s will?
This article is outstanding. I can tell it is backed by much prayer, thought; and, of course, well written. To me the whole issue has always boiled down to a matter of Soli Scriptura, but I appreciate the “Trinitarian” inclusion of doctrine, doscipline, and mission. I am a retired elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference since June of 2012, and a 1973 graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary. I have been fighting for our biblical position on the LGBTQI issues since this first was raised at the end of my middler year at Asbury during the May 1972 General Conference at Atlanta. I believe it is now WAY PAST TIME for those of us who are biblical, evangelical, orthodox, and conservative to be a separate denomination from those who are liberal, progressive, etc. I agree with the author 110% and support everything he so well articulates here.
Let me try this once more, as I don’t think I posted my original comment correctly. I agree wiht Steve Cordle 110%. I am a “fellow Asburian” with him, as I graduate from Asbury Seminary in 1973. I retired from active ministry in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference in June of 2012. I have been fighting for SOLI SCRIPTURA on these issues since they were first raised in our Atlanta General Conference in June of 1972. I have always contended this is a matter of SOLI SCRIPTURA, but I truly appreciate how well Steve articulates that it is “Trinitarian” in nature, not only a matter of SOLI SCRIPTURA, but also a matter of doctrine, discipline, and mission. I had never thought of it in such a manner before reading his article. Thank you, Brother Steve Cordle. It is obvious that you spent much time in prayer and preparation in writing this position.
Thank you so very much for the prayerfully prepared statement. In our local Emmaus community (Four Corners) we have members from many denominations & we hold to the statement attributed to John Wesley, “We may not all believe alike but we can love alike.” The problem in the United Methodist Church has been the failure of the bishops to take action in accord with our discipline. Gay ministers shouldn’t be leading churches or conferences.