New Global, Orthodox Identity for United Methodists Surprises Many

Besides the American Baptist Church (liberal northern counterpart to Southern Baptists), only United Methodism among the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism has officially retained Christian teaching that sex is exclusively for husband and wife.

United Methodists have openly debated sex since 1972, when the General Conference, responding to ambiguous language on sexuality proposed by a church agency, added to the church’s Social Principles that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also stipulated that “sex between a man and a woman is to be clearly affirmed only in the marriage bond.”

 

The late Richard Neuhaus once recalled that in the 1970s it was widely expected among religious cognoscenti that United Methodism would be the first of America’s historically liberal Mainline Protestant denominations to abandon traditional Christian sexual ethics. After all, it was the largest and most Americanized of mainline churches, and it wasn’t protected by strong traditions of liturgy or ecclesiology. Its experiential theology often seemed muddled.

When Neuhaus shared that recollection in 2005, the Episcopal Church and United Church of Christ had already surrendered. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) were on their way. Besides the American Baptist Church (liberal northern counterpart to Southern Baptists), only United Methodism among the “seven sisters” of mainline Protestantism has officially retained Christian teaching that sex is exclusively for husband and wife.

That teaching was stunningly reaffirmed this week at United Methodism’s governing General Conference, specially called to adjudicate the church’s teachings about sex. Stunning at least to the U.S. bishops and other American church elites who’ve long assumed that United Methodism would remain attached to the liberal Protestant project that captured mainline denominations early in the last century. It also stunned secular observers, many of whom assumed that all “mainstream” churches (i.e. not evangelical or fundamentalist) had long ago aligned with American secular culture on sex.

History of the Debate

United Methodists have openly debated sex since 1972, when the General Conference, responding to ambiguous language on sexuality proposed by a church agency, added to the church’s Social Principles that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” It also stipulated that “sex between a man and a woman is to be clearly affirmed only in the marriage bond.”

Over the decades subsequent General Conferences, which typically convene every four years, added that practicing homosexuals—along with other persons sexually active outside natural marriage—could not be ordained. And they banned clergy and churches from celebrating same-sex rites. Funding by church agencies to advocate for homosexual causes was also banned.

United Methodism, after a century as a liberal mainline Protestant denomination, is slowly emerging into a new identity that is global and orthodox.

These policies across years were sustained by evangelical delegates based on theological conviction and by institutionalist delegates for pragmatic and cultural reasons. Liberal activists—cheered by seminaries, church agencies, and many bishops—reasonably assumed that eventually they would prevail. After all, United Methodism was a progressive denomination, and wasn’t sexual liberation the inevitable next step?

Debate Today

And they would’ve been right, but for the rise of United Methodism in Africa, which exploded over the last 25 years to 5.3 million members, or about 43 percent of global United Methodist membership. U.S. membership has shrunk since the 1960s from 11 million to 6.8 million and loses nearly 100,000 annually. Meanwhile the African churches are gaining more than 100,000 annually. African United Methodists, who are uniformly conservative theologically, will outnumber U.S. church members in a decade or less. Churches in the Philippines and Eastern Europe, though much smaller than Africa, are also mostly conservative.

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