The Myth of Evangelical Divisiveness

There is an unfortunate myth floating about that evangelicals want to divide the UMC. The fact of the matter is, I know a lot of evangelicals, and while a few of them really want division, the vast majority want us to work out our differences and move forward without any kind of major separation of the denomination. If the majority of evangelicals wanted to divide the church badly enough, they would do so. As we have seen with the Episcopal Church, property and pensions cannot hold a denomination together.

The idea that evangelicals will vote the church into division at General Conference is simply unrealistic. Just for the sake of argument, let’s assume for a moment that most evangelicals do want division (an assumption that I do not in fact hold). Let’s also assume that enough of these divisive folks were elected to General Conference to gain a majority vote. How would they go about dividing the denomination at General Conference? Through legislation? What form could such legislation take? It would either require a constitutional amendment or violate the constitution of the UMC. In the first case, it would take a supermajority of delegates and annual conferences to pass. That such legislation could gain such widespread support seems exceedingly unlikely. In the second case, it would be struck down by the Judicial Council. It would be pointless, and any delegate worth his or her salt will know this. If the division of the church does happen, it won’t happen through legislation. It will happen by individual churches leaving the denomination, and possibly forming some other type of association among themselves.

One additional question: what actually constitutes division? It seems to me that, say, abolishing the General Conference and dividing instead into regional conferences could be considered a form of division. One could argue that such a form of government greatly undermines our common witness on matters of faith and ethics and actually constitutes a loose association of denominations under the name “United Methodist.” Personally, I think that the greatest potential to divide the church could come through something like A Way Forward. Placing decisions about human sexuality in the hands of local congregations will most certainly split churches, and will likely cause others to leave the denomination.

There are other ways to divide than through some type of legal separation of assets. As I’ve argued before, real unity must have some substance to it.

13 thoughts on “The Myth of Evangelical Divisiveness

  1. I wonder if questions about human sexuality are really just an excuse to split up the denomination. After all, that’s only one issue. It’s been my observation that liberals and conservatives generally don’t like associating with each other at all. At best, they tolerate each other while being certain that the other is wrong. If it wasn’t sexuality, wouldn’t some other point of disagreement be used as an excuse to separate?

    • The sexuality difference is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many differences that run down to the core of our faith – our sources of authority, belief in the supernatural, etc. But it’s hard to divide people up into “liberal” and “conservative” camps. Those words are too loaded with political and other types of meaning. I know that for me, personally, I was considered a “liberal” when I attended a SBC college but now am looked at as a “conservative” in the UMC. And also, as a charismatic (another label), I have encountered hostility from both liberals and conservatives (and the liberals were actually more open to the working of the Spirit than the conservatives). I don’t mind hanging around and talking with people who identify as “liberal” or “conservative” in their politics and ideology . . . as long as they don’t put those things about their faith in Christ and the authority of the Word.

      But people looking for excuses to “split up”? No – there’s no reason to make up excuses. All one has to do is look at the reality of the situation. The denomination is rapidly shrinking, there has been a major need to change our ways but we have unable to make those changes and, as a result, we are now waiting for the connection to implode upon itself, the whole church is full of distrust and bitterness . . . why would we need to “make up” excuses? They’re looking at us right in the face and our leadership keeps on trying to stick it’s corporate head in the sand.

    • as one who is usually for inclusion, the reason I find is the dishonest of the progs who take pledges to break their vows, who deny the doctrinal standards, the Creeds, and the place of Scripture.

      • Wow, Joel, from you, I expect more than just extreme labeling of ‘progs’. I would expect a more respectful comment. There is no indication that the Creeds and the place of Scriptural authority is disputed. I would suggest that the inclusion of language that calls out a minority of all our broken and fallen sisters and brothers as inconsistent with our doctrine in the late 20th century as being inappropriate and should be removed from our doctrinal ‘standards.’ Our denomination has much work to do in bringing healing and comfort and grace in a very broken world. Division lends itself to more hurt and need for more healing. If we divide, will we not spend much time, energy, prayer and funding to ‘heal’ once again? I say that those resources could be better spent thinking beyond ourselves and looking forward to God’s Kingdom building.

  2. David, you know I appreciate you and I know you are working hard to keep our church united. So close to our West Ohio gathering I really questioned whether to respond to your article. However, I question your assertion that there is just a “few” who want or are open to schism. I think the fear of many of us who are dedicated to keeping our church united rises from the following acts by traditionalist leadership over the past year alone. 1. The clandestine gathering last summer of 80 leading traditionalists who met to consider the question of schism. Big turn off to centrists and center-right UM’s. Thank God that was not the clandestine group’s choice for now however it was on the table and seemed to be less than a faithful response considering participants would not reveal their identity even if they were driven to this conversation in response by the acts of to a few progressive clergy. Secret meetings are not part of our DNA and spread the problem of distrust that we seriously struggle with in our church today. 2. The March board meeting of Good News (the largest UM conservative caucus) that resulted in this self-published admission from Tom Lambrect entitled “Traveling Through the Wilderness.” I don’t know how someone could not read Tom published and not conclude that for Good News schism is on the table and a talking point at leadership gatherings. I personally would feel much more at ease if leading traditionalist leaders signed a statement that said they will stick with UMC through thick and thin even if a compromise measure on same gender marriages and ordination eligibility was passed by the General Conference as long as there was room for all United Methodists to live out their theological convictions on these questions. Imagine defusing an already tense situation and leading out of love with such a statement. Thus far no leading traditionalist I have seen has made such a statement. Do you know if such a statement exists? 90% of UM’s don’t want schism and by a far margin most UM’s don’t see the “question of the day” as the most important concern. We see discipleship, youth ministry, evangelism as far more important matters. This is where plenty of pragmatic conservatives and pragmatic progressives stand. We are willing to stick with our church even if no compromise measure is passed because we believe Christ’s call to a unified church by him, in him, and through him is a serious demand. Christ’s call to unity for his church is far greater than the two questions, same gender marriage and ordination eligibility. Do you think IRD, Good News, Confessing Movement and those aligned with these groups would stay in the church if the current position is altered even in the slightest? Look forward to our continuing friendship and work in the life of the church. I so appreciate you friend.

    • Doug, i appreciate your passion and commitment to the unity of our denomination. I am evangelical, orthodox, etc, and I do hope we can maintain a strong and united connection. Yet, and I believe this is the primary disconnect between center and liberal leaders versus right leaning and orthodox leaders, I place faithfulness over unity. I can not be united in any organization, submitting myself to its authority, that places anything over faithfulness to the solid orthodox expression of faith in Jesus Christ, especially as presented by John Wesley. It would break my heart to leave the UMC or to see it separated. Yet I am willing to endure that pain for the sake of faithfulness. To quote another reformer from another tradition for which though not united through institution I find unity of faith, “Here I stand, I can do no other” (Martin Luther). I believe our priorities distance us and will unfortunately eventually separate us.

    • I don’t mean to be a jerk but I call BS in this post. The supposed “clandestine” meeting of these evangelical pastors was in response to the open and brazen disregard of the BOD by those claiming “biblical obedience.” They tried to get a response by the bishops but couldn’t do it. There are all sorts of “clandestine” meetings that take place in our denomination – just look at the total joke that was the “Connectional Table” proposal and the bishop’s declaration that “we are not of the same mind” i.e. “we don’t agree on anything and can’t do anything and so we’re just going to say the SOS over and over and act like we’re not in a crisis.”

      And please, I am so sick and tired of people labeling themselves with things like “centrists.” What are you central to? The Bible, the United Methodist church, historical Methodism? Who gave you the right to make yourselves the “center” and everybody else “right” or “left”? It all just smacks of “holier-than-thou-ism.”

      And Doug, I just don’t get how there are people who are so hung up on this issue of calling homosexual not a sin and marrying homosexuals who are alright with the discipline staying the same. If you have such conviction and you think it’s doing harm to people, how can you not be so passionate about it that you leave and follow your convictions? I think I have more respect for the radical progressives who are ready to go if the BOD remains the same.

  3. I’ve probably posted too much but I just wanted to make a positive post about the UMC in general. As an evangelical (in the historical sense) and a charismatic, I do not want the UMC to split. The BOD is filled with great doctrine and the denomination itself is filled with a lot of great pastors and teachers who are doing some awesome work. Splitting would cause many to focus a lot of time, energy, and effort on creating new structures, confessions, doctrinal sources and so forth. But, on the other hand, there is a lot of time, effort, and energy being devoted into these battles, arguments, and so-called “discussions” about homosexuality and other issues and there seems to be no end in sight.

    I will say that, no matter what GC 2016 brings, change is coming. A lot of our churches are going to be shut down, money is going to dry up, patience is going to wear out. Churches in the UMC are going to reap what they have sown. The UMC general church has worked to form people who are loyal to the general church and who do what they’re told to do: pay apportionments, use the denominational lingo, be politically correct, and on time for all the meetings. While such people might be good to preserve a hierarchy/system, they do not do well at evangelization, church planting, and just regular old, everyday Christian ministry. You need Spirit-filled people who live with some conviction in their hearts that Jesus is Lord to do that.

    I truly believe that there are some good times ahead for us who are hungry for a true Methodist revival and want to scriptural holiness spread throughout the land. I have worked and am working with people across the world who are seeking to implement Wesley’s methods of renewal into our current times and I am just so blessed to be around such people. Whatever happens next year, it’s time for all those who are of the same mind to come together around Wesleyan mission (NOT denominational “unity”) and make a difference in our generation.

  4. No doubt almost any claim about “evangelicals,” just like any claim about “progressives” will be false, because these are abstract categories that cover diverse populations. However, it is clear that some evangelicals would rather divide the church than find ways to recognize our reasonable disagreement about homosexuality. Some (at least 88 as I recall) explicitly called at one point for schism. The didn’t lay out how they would achieve this, but I don’t think that this should stop us from taking them at their own word about their desires.

    And, I agree with you that plans like A Way Forward would lead to some division. Of course there is always some division in our unity (after all, it is not like we all agree now and A Way Forward would change that) so that fact by itself doesn’t mean much. To establish your point here you would need to show that there is something about the kind or degree of division involved in A Way Forward that would constitute dividing into different denominations.

    It is unclear what you mean by saying that A Way Forward has the greatest potential to divide us. If you mean that it is the most likely legislation to pass, and it brings about some division, I would agree. (I don’t think any are really likely to pass, but this is probably the most likely). If you mean that it is the proposal that would bring about the most division, then the claim seems wrongheaded. The jurisdictional option, for example clearly does more to establish multiple loosely related denominations. And see again my note about proposals that have literally called for schism.

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