A Church In Crisis: Reflections on the UMC

In a hotly debated and contentious decision the church doubled down on the current position and even tightened its restrictions.

I’ll admit that the General Conference captured my attention — I watched, listened, and read with great interest. Now, you may wonder why a confessional Presbyterian would be attentive to the things going on in the United Methodist Church. After all, our theology and polity are significantly different. True as that may be, what interested me most was not the denominational polity or theology but the talking points. The surrounding debate revealed an extremely complex church crisis.

 

“Closed hearts. Closed minds. Closed doors.” That’s how some people are responding to the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. The top legislative body met to act on a report that examined the church’s position on human sexuality and explore options to strengthen church unity. Church officials and lay members had to decide whether or not to retain the church’s position which is against same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. In a hotly debated and contentious decision the church doubled down on the current position and even tightened its restrictions.

I’ll admit that the General Conference captured my attention — I watched, listened, and read with great interest. Now, you may wonder why a confessional Presbyterian would be attentive to the things going on in the United Methodist Church. After all, our theology and polity are significantly different. True as that may be, what interested me most was not the denominational polity or theology but the talking points. The surrounding debate revealed an extremely complex church crisis. Actually, to be more accurate it’s a complication of many crises that signal a serious problem. So serious that, in my opinion, while I applaud the final decision it seems, at best, to be the patching of a hole in a burning church building.

However, I don’t write that to heap up criticism against the United Methodist Church. You could just as well erase the denominational name and scribble “Presbyterian,” “Baptist,” or “Lutheran” in its place. It would be extremely nearsighted if we thought our particular denomination or confession made us immune to the crises pulling that church apart. Rather, this critical situation — a story that’s been told again and again — is a cautionary tale to every church no matter our creed or polity.

Crisis of Culture: Some of the most pointed and critical comments came from Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, Dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. He said: “And please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to ‘grow up.’ Let me assure you, we Africans, whether we like it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.”

Those extremely uncomfortable words confront and rebuke an unholy alliance that often exists between the church and the world. When Jesus taught that the church is the salt of the earth and the light of the world he intended that we should influence the world not adopt its darkness and rottenness. That’s because the motives, values, and agenda of this world are at odds with those of the church. The Bible is clear: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4). We don’t need a church that is panting after friendship with the world but one that stands upon the claims of Jesus Christ in direct opposition to the world.

Crisis of Consistency: Many who opposed changing the position of the church rightly pointed to the Bible’s definition of marriage. But those who advocated for an all-inclusive church were quick to demonstrate inconsistencies present in the church. For instance, one speaker challenged all the seated bishops as to how many of them had gotten an unbiblical divorce concluding: “I’m convinced there’s people pushing a button to oppress people for the first half of Matthew 19 who are guilty of the second half. In another speech a man said: “I wish we had a purely holy church. But when I become a United Methodist there were pastors who were marrying people after two or three marriages. And I said ‘Isn’t that against the book,’ and they said, ‘Well, we’re a gracious people.’”

Additionally, Adam Hamilton pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in Leawood, KS said: “I’d like to say a bit about biblical interpretation […] Paul says more about [the role of women in the church] than about same sex acts in the New Testament. Yet [you have] clearly stated that [you] support women in ministry. You say Paul had women in leadership. True. But despite this he was clear ‘Women must not teach a man and they are to remain silent.’ How did you get there? You interpreted the text in light of the cultural context and with an ear to more important biblical ideas.”

There’s a tragic truth present in those comments: there’s a lack of moral and interpretive consistency. Now, this lack doesn’t mean the traditional conclusion is wrong. But it does weaken a faithful witness and the moral authority of the church. In fact, Paul warned of this very thing: “You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Romans 2:23-24).

Crisis of Conviction: In response to the final decision a pastor wrote an open letter to his congregation saying: “We are ‘orthodox’ (some would say conservative) when it comes to the historic essentials of the Christian faith. I believe in the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, his miracles, in the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, and in the literal resurrection of Jesus from the grave. Yet under the rules the WCA has just passed at General Conference, I don’t think I could be approved for ordained ministry as a United Methodist today.”

True, those are the “historic essentials” of Christianity. But there’s a subtle danger in reducing ordained ministry and denominational identity to the lowest common denominator. That’s because God’s Word doesn’t only give us historic essentials. The Bible teaches us what we are to believe concerning God and what duties God requires of us — and it does so authoritatively, sufficiently, and clearly. This kind of doctrinal minimization isn’t in keeping with the Apostolic ordering and expectation of the New Testament church. There is a wide array of doctrinal convictions that the church is to receive, teach and guard (see 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 Timothy 1:14, Jude 1:3, etc).

Read More