Here is the sad lesson for conservatives. Once a church, for any length of time, accommodates theological and moral liberalism, it is almost never brought to reformation. To put it another way, a church that will not take decisive action to remove those who are theological liberals and teaching and believing what is contrary to the faith that established the denomination, a denomination that refuses to excise people who teach contrary to their fundamental beliefs, is a denomination that will no longer have fundamental beliefs.
In the United States in theological terms, there can be no doubt that the biggest story in recent months comes to the headline, “United Methodist Church Announces plan to Split over Same-Sex Marriage.” Let’s just remind ourselves that the United Methodist Church, formed as the United Methodist Church in 1968, has been the very last of the mainline Protestant denominations to resist officially changing its policy to affirm openly gay clergy and the affirmation of same-sex marriage, but that is not to say that it has been under the control of conservatives.
It is to say the beginning in the 1970s and onward, the United Methodist Church decided to invite international churches to be a part of the body, and in time that has meant that the United Methodists have become less and less likely, officially and globally, to affirm same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ agenda. But at the same time, given the fact the United Methodism had moved in such liberal directions in North America, it found itself even when conservatives won votes largely incapable or unwilling of limiting the move to the left when it came to those who were actively seeking to embrace the LGBTQ agenda and all related to it.
Last year, conservatives won a narrow victory and a specially called General Conference of the church in which they turned back efforts to rewrite the United Methodist Book of Discipline in order to allow openly gay clergy and the confirmation and celebration of same-sex marriages. But even as they tried to put in increased strictures to keep the church in a more conservative direction, it was clear in subsequent months that the liberals were not going to give up. And furthermore, in the United States, it was also clear that a majority of United Methodists were willing to allow the denomination to move left, even if they themselves were not characterized as being liberals.
This is a pattern we need to note that has been widespread throughout the liberal overtaking of American Protestantism. When you consider the other mainline Protestant denominations, it comes down to a trichotomy identified by Presbyterian historian Bradley Longfield. In the subtitle of his history of the Presbyterian controversy, he called the three parties, Modernists–that means the liberals–and Fundamentalists and Moderates, but in almost every case it’s the muddy middle that ends up ensuring the liberal future of the church because those moderates are unwilling to draw clear doctrinal and moral boundaries and to make them stick. They are far more concerned with holding the denomination, the institution, or the congregation together than they are with keeping a very clear commitment to the historic Christian faith and to its central doctrines and moral teachings.
In almost every single case, indeed, without exception, the liberals were themselves not sufficiently numerous to take over the denomination. But they were able to bring along the moderates who were unwilling to kick the liberals out, and in almost every case that has meant that it is the conservatives that have left. There are many people looking at the United Methodist Church, believing it could be the exception that perhaps the conservatives would indeed gain eventual control, and win over the support of the moderates in the United Methodist Church. But the headlines that came just in recent days indicate that conservatives have given up that battle, and yet they had sufficient strength to strike a certain sort of bargain with all the parties that will remain in the United Methodist Church.
Campbell Robertson and Elizabeth Dias reporting for the New York Times tell us, “A group of leaders of the United Methodist Church, the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States announced on Friday a plan that would formerly split the church, citing fundamental differences over same-sex marriage after years of division.” They went on to explain, “The plan would sunder a denomination with 13 million members globally, roughly half of them in the United States, and create at least one new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would continue to ban same-sex marriage as well as the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy.”
Now, in summarizing what comes next, the New York Times rightly prophesies that it seems likely that the majority of the denomination’s churches in the United States would remain in the existing United Methodist Church, “Which would become a more liberal leaning institution as conservative congregations worldwide depart.” The Times also tells us, “A separation in the Methodist Church, a denomination long home to a varied mix of left and right, had been brewing for years, if not decades. It had become widely seen as likely after a contentious General Conference in St. Louis last February, when 53% of church leaders and lay members voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage, declaring that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Actually, it should have been noted in the Times article that that is not a new position undertaken by United Methodist, but rather it was a restatement and reaffirmation of the historic Methodist Book of Discipline.
So this raises a huge question: if the conservatives won with that 53% vote, then why is it the conservatives that are leaving? Now the stated reason is fairly easy to understand. Conservatives came to the conclusion that the liberals would never give up and the moderates would never actually deal with the issues, and thus they found themselves in the impractical and implausible situation of being stuck forever in a denomination that was moving to the left, even as conservatives won vote after vote. But there was another principial and convictional issue that has been missed or ignored by most in the mainstream media and that is the fact that evangelical, orthodox, conservative Christians in the United Methodist Church came to the inevitable conclusion that if they remained in the United Methodist Church, then they were, de facto, just as a matter of reality, going to be a part of a denomination that did have openly gay clergy. It does, and even has an openly gay elected bishop of the church and does have many ministers and bishops supportive of same-sex marriage.
The issue for conservatives was, do we stay in, and effectively remain a part of a denomination committing apostasy, or do we leave? And the decision came, to leave. The proposed protocol announced by Methodist leaders on Friday would provide $25 million to this new traditionalist Methodist denomination. It would allow congregations a limited amount of time to move themselves into that new denomination and keep their property. It also means that the new denomination would forfeit any further financial claims against the United Methodist church and pensions are always a part of the mix when it comes to mainline Protestantism. People who have both remained in the denomination and left to join this new traditionalist denomination will be able to keep their pensions. One interesting if diabolical dimension of what’s been taking place in other denominations, particularly in the PCUSA, is that in order to fund the pensions of retiring liberals, those denominations have often held congregations effectively captive to the ownership of their own property.
They have required the congregations that after all gave the money to build the properties to effectively buy them back themselves at exorbitant rates in order to keep their properties because the denominations, in decline, every single one of them needs the money to continue to fund the ministerial pensions. It’s also interesting that the mainstream media have reported that leaders of the church turn to a mediator, in this case attorney Kenneth Feinberg. He was the lawyer who helped to arrange the settlements that arose from the 2010 BP oil spill and also from the September 11 terrorist attacks. He is neither a Christian nor United Methodist, and interestingly, he said, “I’m the last person in the world who’s going to help the parties resolve their doctrinal differences.” Thus, in his words, the negotiations were, “Largely secular: process, governance, finances.”
This is just a massive story any way you look at it. We are reminded that Methodism itself emerged from John and Charles Wesley in the 18th century, and it was the Methodists who came to the United States and established their own denomination as the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. Like other American Protestant denominations, it split during the Civil War but came back together in 1939 as the Methodist Episcopal Church. It joined with the Brethren in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church. But if anything, since that point, it was ununited when it came to theology, even by 1968 it was clear that theological tensions within Methodism were just about as considerable as within any of the other mainline Protestant denominations.
The question when it comes down to the split that was proposed last Friday [January 3, 2020] by the United Methodist Church is not Why did it happen so suddenly? but Why did it take so long? The answer to that probably comes down to the fact that conservative United Methodists were doing their utmost to try to bring reformation and renewal within their denomination, and they were trying not to appear divisive. But here is the sad lesson for conservatives. Once a church, for any length of time, accommodates theological and moral liberalism, it is almost never brought to reformation.
To put it another way, a church that will not take decisive action to remove those who are theological liberals and teaching and believing what is contrary to the faith that established the denomination, a denomination that refuses to excise people who teach contrary to their fundamental beliefs, is a denomination that will no longer have fundamental beliefs. At this point, biblically-minded Christian should pray for the conservatives within the United Methodist Church that have a big task ahead of them, arranging for a new denomination. And we should pray that that denomination will to the maximum be supportive of historic Christianity and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Albert H. Mohler is President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. This article is used with permission.