Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in the United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church is in a fundamental struggle over the gospel of Jesus Christ

“Paul called Timothy to “preach the Word!” because a time is coming when “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3,4). This testimony is true about the UMC today. We are constantly being told that we have two factions in the church, both of which believe that they are being faithful and who sincerely hold certain positions which have been labeled “conservative” and “progressive.”

 

Many of us are watching with sadness the emerging, seemingly inevitable, separation (however amicable) between the so-called progressives and the so-called conservatives in the United Methodist Church. By any read of the situation, the UMC of the 21st century stands in grave peril. It would be too simplistic to say that it is in peril because of the precipitous decline in membership, the challenge of redefining human sexuality, gridlocked leadership, budget woes, or the public defiance by some bishops of the Book of Discipline. Those are all symptoms of the real issue which is at stake.

The UMC is not fundamentally in a fight over homosexuality, or how to get the church to grow. Our basic struggle is not even over how to get the church to live together, or whether or not certain lines in the Book of Discipline should be enforced or not. Those are merely the presenting issues. We are in a fundamental struggle over the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the issue which is before us. Paul called Timothy to “preach the Word!” because a time is coming when “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3,4). This testimony is true about the UMC today. We are constantly being told that we have two factions in the church, both of which believe that they are being faithful and who sincerely hold certain positions which have been labeled “conservative” and “progressive.”

There are two main reasons why I do not like the term “progressive” to refer the faction within the UMC who are pushing for an ongoing re-imagining of the gospel, the debunking of biblical authority and a radical new morality in step with contemporary culture. First, the term “progressive” calls to mind the word “progress” and implicitly suggests that the “progressive” positions, if embraced, will move the church forward, rather than backward. Second, using the two terms “progressive” and “conservative” tends to portray the idea that we are roughly divided between two groups who are each the moral and ecclesiastical equivalent of the other. Therefore, (so the argument goes) we just need to find some creative way to make both groups happy. I have heard many UM leaders say, “Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we just agree to disagree?”

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