Is Today the Beginning of the End of the UMC?

I can’t help shake the uneasy feeling that it’s all coming apart today.  For in just a few hours a retired Methodist bishop from California will conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony in Alabama in a ceremony that is neither legal in that state nor allowed by the rules of our denomination.

He will do so against the expressed wishes of the resident bishop of that area, as well as the counsel of most of his fellow bishops.  But as a retired bishop, it is unlikely that he will face any real consequences for his actions at all.

In the coming weeks, some thirty UM pastors elsewhere have similarly pledged to jointly conduct a same-sex ceremony in an act of solidarity with a fellow clergyman who awaits a church trial on just such a charge.

And in the meantime, our Judicial Council is deliberating today in Baltimore on whether or not the decision to simply ignore church law on this question is an allowable action by an annual conference which is convinced that the wider church is wrong.

Some will say that it is all political theater, of course, particularly as the ceremony today is taking place in Birmingham, where decades ago the civil rights movement unfurled against the harsh realities of unrepentant racism.

And others will call what the bishop is doing there an act of “gospel disobedience,” necessitated by the continued refusal of the denomination to change its policies on same-sex issues.

But what if those policies are actually not just a matter of Pharisaic legalism or even blind-sided bigotry wearing religious clothing, but instead reflect the authentic witness of the scriptures which tell us of God’s ultimate protective will for all of his children?

You see, I have no doubt whatsoever that those who are advocating the change–even violently taking the kingdom by force at this point to quote Matthew 11–are completely sincere in their desire to “do no harm” by extending the ministries of the church to all.

And I understand that we are talking about real people here, and not just the avatars of someone’s agenda.  Indeed, many of them are individuals whom I have come to love, and it pains me to see their pain as well, much less contribute to it in any way.

But I likewise know that many of those who stand on the other side of the question are equally sincere in trying to simply hear the still small voice of God over the cacophonous chorus of the culture.  And if so, does that not mean that someone here must be “sincerely wrong” in their assessment of what the scriptures actually say to this question?

The very possibility of that requires us all thus to walk carefully, taking seriously the insights of those from across the world and even across the ages.  And towards that end, may we not believe that the collective judgment that speaks in our church as expressed through the General Conference is worth following, again not as a matter of mere legalism but as an authentic act of faith and obedience, not to our own perceptions but to the wider understandings of the church assembled?

Today may not be the beginning of the end of the United Methodist Church.  But as frayed as we already are in the eyes of the world, it clearly won’t take much to unravel us completely if we are not extremely careful.  It’s thus not a time for any of us to be pulling the loose strings of our already disentangled denomination.

In the words of an ancient prayer, may God deliver us from the “laziness that is content to settle for half-truths and from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth.”

Today is definitely a day for prayer.

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23 Responses to Is Today the Beginning of the End of the UMC?

  1. John W. Worsham says:

    For me, today is the beginning of the end for The United Methodist Church. The fact that we are even debating such an issue is beyond my understanding. Several years ago I served as a delegate to General Conference. My great grandfather and great-great grandfather were Methodist circuit riders, so my roots are deep in The Methodist Church, but this is not the same church which I have loved over the years. The decision made by our Judicial Council will determine whether I continue as a member, or leave to worship elsewhere.

    • Carolyn Huntsman says:

      Thanks John! I agree, this is NOT the same church we have loved! I anxiously await the decision of our JC. By the way, we missed you on the delegation last year. I always looked forward to your insight!

  2. John Meunier says:

    Perhaps we all need to pray and fast together … on all sides. Very thoughtful post. Thank you.

  3. United Methodist Insight would like permission to repost your article on our website, um-insight.net. Please reply to one.scribe56@gmail.com. Thank you!

  4. Jason Nemeck says:

    The church survived splits over slavery, interracial marriage, divorce, continued arguments over abortion, etc. There will be people and perhaps whole churches that take their leave over this issue, but some smart person will find a way through to the other side, without making everybody deliriously happy or unhappy along the way.
    At least, I hope so.

    • Mike Tarner says:

      Amen.

      • Caleb says:

        I am in total agreement with everything that you have said. However, we must remember the importance of Gospel obedience… that is, living a life of repentance from sin, expressing genuine faith. A homosexual lifestyle is one that is incompatible with the Christian walk. While we must acknowledge, as Paul does in 1st Corinthians 6:9-11, that there are brothers and sisters in the pews that have these struggles, we are not called to accept their sin… and if I may add, we are not called to accept ours either. We are called to follow Jesus, and this means rejecting all that we are and trusting in all that He is.

      • Mike Tarner says:

        Your last line – that’s great if you can do it. Trouble is, we can’t. Even the Apostle Paul admitted he couldn’t. That is where grace comes in. God’s grace does for us what we can’t do for ourselves – makes us beloved children of God,

      • Caleb says:

        Paul also reminds us not to abuse the concept of grace for sinful purposes. We are not called to live in sin, and our New Birth allows us to follow – grace always comes into play. Romans 6:1 answers our question here perfectly. Scripture, that is, God’s infallible Word, always provides the correct answer for us Christians. I am also reminded of 2nd Chronicles 7:14 where it is interesting to not that God is not asking the world to repent in order to regain stability, security, and peace, He is talking to His people.

      • Mike Tarner says:

        Exactly!

    • Caleb says:

      What does Holy Scripture say?

      • Mike Tarner says:

        Actually, the Holy Scripture says a lot about loving those who are different from us, of seeking unity in the midst of different attitudes, opinions, and perspectives. It says a lot about focusing so much on loving Jesus and making disciples for the transformation of the world that the Church is transformed into a body of believers full of grace and the spirit of forgiveness, as we all have been forgiven by God for Christ’s sake. I believe this is one way that the “some smart person” will find a way to the other side. I can’t say I understand this thought completely, but I love the “poet and dreamer” aspect of it.

  5. administrator says:

    I can see your points, Chappell. It’s an interesting time in the life of our denomination.

    The first difficult thing I see is with the part of civil disobedience. It is a hard line to walk. We’ve been and continue to be a church of social justice teachings. And, we tend to honor those that stood up to the status quo of the church before (Martin Luther, John Wesley). But, when someone is challenging what we hold dear, it’s difficult to hold them in the same light. How do we determine which challengers should be honored and which should be punished?

    The second thing that struck me is that, yes, the UMC denomination has an identity crisis as well as a communications issue (full reveal to those of you that don’t know me: I’m a communications/marketing person and therefore have a bias). We claim to be an organization of open doors, open hearts and open minds (love that by the way), but it doesn’t match what we are doing. We may tell the homosexual community that they are welcome, but when we preach against them in the sermon, right or wrong, they aren’t going to feel very welcome. As I mentioned above, we are a denomination that supports social justice, but I don’t have a clear understanding of how our position on that relates to the homosexual community. Three, the official church stance is that homosexuality is sinful, but I’m yet to hear the explanation behind our stance. If we want people to agree with that position, we should provide them our arguments for that position. Maybe it exists, but I as a lay member don’t know where. Finally, we are a “grey” church. Some pastors hate that and I understand why, but it is partially why I am a member. We are REASONABLE. Yes, divorce is bad and should be avoided at all costs, but if you have a husband that is beating you? It’s ok. Get out. Some call that grey, I call it life.

    I think the only way the denomination will survive is to be more clear. Who are we? What do we stand for? Why do we stand for it? and how do our actions match what we stand for?

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Nicole, and you are right that our denomination does need to be more clear about who we are and what we stand for. The deeper problem is, however, that those on both sides of many questions are all trying to stake out the higher moral ground while still defining the UMC to fit their own perceptions. I believe that there is indeed a solid biblical and historical case to be made for the current positions of our church, but rather than deal with the scriptural witness, we have often focused in on personal experience instead. If you’re interested, I’d be glad to share a short article that I wrote many years ago on the biblical material dealing with this subject which looks beyond merely proof-texting and tries to see if there is a broader theme running throughout the Word which might give us a better indication of what God’s ultimate will for all of His children might be.

  6. Eric Huffman says:

    What a thoughtful and nuanced post. Thank you for refusing to preach any party line and instead sharing your inspired words. I am praying for the churcb that I love.

  7. administrator says:

    Hi Chappell. I’d love to read your article! Can you please email it to me?

    I think something as simple as revamping the UMC website with the disciplines with cited Biblical sources would be a good start.

    Hopefully they come to some sort of consensus soon!

  8. Skulking about the wharves of Joppa says:

    The term ‘Social Justice’ makes me uncomfortable. The term and tradition can be used in support of almost any largely political position on abortion, environment, taxation, drugs, etc. “Grey” is not exactly a term I like either in the context of the church. We are all sinners and make mistakes, but there is one truth. God gave us hearts and minds – we must use them both, prayerfully, to help distinguish the truth from lies. Feeling is important, but not enough. There is absolute truth, and it does not change according to politics, fashion, time, location, culture, or anything else. I’ve been prayerfully considering whether it is a sin to contribute to Christian organizations that promote sin, no matter how lovingly or well-intentioned.

    The prevailing opinion is that it is our duty to give, and if that money is spent irresponsibly then that is someone else’s issue with God. I disagree. God gave us a Bible and brains to use. It is a sin to knowingly support the promotion of sin, just as we must love sinners. We can all find other great Christian organizations and causes to support. We can even spend the money directly on God’s causes. The UMC is dangerously close to the line on a number of issues. If the tent is big enough for Satan and God, then it must be downsized. I join you all in prayer for the UMC and Christian church in general. May we know the truth and live it!

    • Mike Tarner says:

      “Social Justice” makes us uncomfortable!?! Maybe then we are too comfortable with the many injustices in the world.
      I guess we could donate money to “other great Christian organizations” who say they are against sin, but then we would probably be donating money toward the outlandish salaries and extravagant life styles of their leaders; which would be promoting greed, which the Bible does call sin.

  9. Skulking about the wharves of Joppa says:

    Hi Mike, I said the term makes me uncomfortable (maybe I should have said wary), because it is used to support or even promote almost any position (e.g. Carbon credit trade, gay marriage, banning breast milk, population control). I’d list some links but you can find them. Obviously things like slavery and elective or forced abortion are evil. The abolitionist tradition is part of what attracts me to the UMC church. Of course I am comfortable with Justice and indeed pray for it. Again, may we know the truth and live it. Now, as for the assumption that other Christian organizations have outlandish salaries and promote greed, I’m talking about ones I know of – like a missionary I know selflessly leading an orphanage in Honduras, or my cousin living in poverty as a missionary in China. I’m not talking about high-salaried organizations like Planned Parenthood, for which numerous UMC clergy support and serve on advisory boards. My point was that I am struggling and the church is struggling (is my double meaning nom de plume not obvious enough?) with this. I am, however, aware of absolute good that I can support. God bless.

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