The Liabilities of Thought

For some time I have lamented the fact that our conversations in United Methodism have been so myopic. We argue about human sexuality, and this topic dominates social media, discussions related to the Connectional Table, annual conferences, and the General Conference. Of course, human sexuality is an important topic, one worth talking about, but there are many important topics, and most are lost in our current denominational shouting match.

I never thought there would be a topic that would dethrone human sexuality from its privileged place at the top of the UM agenda. I was wrong. We have now entered into a period of unprecedented navel-gazing. We have fixated on avoiding “schism,” and even the mere mention of the word has the power to shape delegations and bring together groups that seem to have little in common otherwise.

I have to admit, I have been taken aback by the power of this political strategy. In West Ohio, evangelicals, who usually make a strong showing, were just royally trounced by a coalition of centrists and progressives. One evangelical clergy person was elected to General Conference. The centrists and progressives in our conference combined their slate, while raising the specter of “schism” in social media. It was a kind of Methodist Red Scare. And it worked.

None of the evangelical leaders in West Ohio has supported a denominational division. The leadership of the Evangelical Fellowship of West Ohio was approached about this, but they declined to participate. As one who was on the evangelical slate, I was implicitly thrown in among the “schismatics” despite my many public statements against dividing the denomination. United Methodism is the church of my baptism, confirmation, and ordination. I have never belonged to any other tradition. I grew up in UMYF. I attended a UM seminary and took vows to uphold the doctrines and disciplines of this tradition. My wife and I were married in a UM church by a UM minister. I served on the staff of a UM church in Dallas, and now serve as the Academic Dean of a UM seminary. I have served on the Miami Valley District Committee on Ordained Ministry, the West Ohio Board of Ordained Ministry, the Inclusive Body of Christ Ministry Team, and the University Senate. I attend a UM congregation weekly with my family and am raising my children in this tradition. Heck, I co-wrote a book called Key United Methodist Beliefs. Perhaps you can see, then, why I would be a bit offended at the implication that I want to destroy this church.

In times of crisis, however, facts and rationality become luxuries many feel we cannot afford. Let’s think for a moment about the possibility of “schism” in our denomination. Would election of more evangelical candidates to the General Conference likely result in a denominational division? If we answer “yes” to this question, we are assuming that the tendency among evangelicals is toward division. Keep in mind, however, that when a few key leaders associated with Good News called a group of eighty or so evangelical United Methodist pastors and other church leaders together to discuss division, the group ultimately opted against a split. They made a conscious decision, at least at that time, that the division of the denomination was not something they wished to pursue. Yet rather than take this as a sign that evangelical UM leaders favored keeping the denomination together, many in the UMC have taken this as a sign that evangelicals wish to split the denomination. It is contrary to reason, but reason be damned. The possibility of division is a powerful political tool.

Even if it were true, however, that the majority of evangelicals wished to split the denomination, and even if these church-splitters could in fact get enough of their ilk elected to GC, how would they go about engineering this split? Maybe I’m missing something. That’s entirely possible. Yet I can’t see any way that a legislative division could take place. As I have argued before,

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.

Yes, individual churches may simply leave on their own. Faced with mounting legal costs, annual conferences will likely let them go. This scenario becomes more likely as certain bishops continue to facilitate violations of the discipline, the Connectional Table continues to act like a left-wing advocacy group, and the newly-constituted United Methodist Centrist Movement and other like-minded folks continue to advocate for a “unity” that has no basis in theology or ethics.

What we have at the moment is an emerging Methodist McCarthyism. Don’t be branded as one of the “schismatics,” or your voice will be marginalized. And if you are an evangelical, you are likely a “schismatic.” Of course, this claim is nonsense, but that seems to make no difference. In our current cultural climate, we often hear the maxim, “Perception is reality.” This is a dangerous position to take. Perception is not reality. Perception can be skewed, and reality really does matter. The reality is, it is a vocal minority of UM’s who want to divide the church right now. The perception, unfortunately, is otherwise. If we took time really to think through this matter, we would see this. It is regrettable that thinking is apparently too great of a liability.

22 thoughts on “The Liabilities of Thought

  1. Hi Dave, and thank you for your post. My fear for the United Methodist Church is that, at the present, we are mirroring the divisiveness of the political reality in the US. We use labels to divide, and that division forces us in to smaller and smaller tribes. I am a UM pastor and could be labeled evangelical when it comes to community and global witness, orthodox when it comes to theology, liberal when when it comes to politics, collaborative when it comes to leadership, and pragmatic when it comes to change.

    I’m also thinking that sexual practices are just the surface issue, not the real issue dividing us. I think the real issue is our interpretation of the Bible as a denomination. Do we give every verse in every book in both Testaments equal weight, or do we pick and choose? We already disagree with Paul’s letters (hopefully, at least) about slavery, about a woman’s role in the family and society, and about women speaking in church. How do we determine what parts of the Bible are relevant and what parts are anachronistic? And who decides? Can we affirm together that Jesus is indeed Lord, Son of God and Son of Man while saying that Paul may not apply in every situation?

    One side seems to be saying that we have moved to far away from Biblical standards and values and another side seems to be saying, “just a little farther, just one more step.” Others seem to fear that if the Bible isn’t perfect in every way then their faith will have been in vain. Still others are heartbroken at the lack of compassion but seem to gloss over accountability while saying civil disobedience to conflicting rules is a good witness.

    Perhaps the United Methodist Church is in for an extensive period of pruning. I hope that, if pruning is a reality, that we come through it bearing greater fruit and less deadwood.

    • Sir: I agree one hundred percent that human sexuality is a symptom rather than the root of the disease trying to kill our community. Is it possible that our differences over how we interpret scripture are also a symptom, rather than a cause of the de facto schism that we face?

      The root issue is not the authority of scripture. The root issue is the authority of God.

      The authority of God is ultimately grounded in who God is and what He has done. Deut 5:2; Exodus 22:2. We owe the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worship because He brought us out of Egypt (bondage to the darkness of sin, death, and decay) and into the promised land (His glorious light).

      The Hebrew and Greek scriptures tell us the true story of Mankind. Created entirely good and destined ultimately to BE the Image in which we are created, men and women reject the authority of God. We now live in what Paul T. Griffiths describes as the devastation. We reject the glorious light of God and embrace the darkness of sin and death. In doing so we ultimately worship ourselves and our desires (materialism in America) or we worship power (totalitarianism as manifested throughout history).

      The true story of Man gives us a picture of who we are. Our feeble way of describing this is to say that the Scriptures teach us a true anthropology of man. The first thing we learn about who we are is that we are created male and female, and that reality about us is the very first thing God tells us about who we are.

      The division in our Church is thus ultimately at the level of worldview. Differences at that level are not mere differences of opinion about how we read the Bible.

      Jim Lung
      Greensboro, NC

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