If you have not been paying attention recently, the United Methodist Church is searching for its identity. The Western Jurisdiction elected an openly practicing homosexual bishop, which has been widely celebrated among the circle of United Methodists who seek a more inclusive church. The same event has been mourned by others who seek to retain the current stance. So many of the clergy and laity I speak with point at this particular ecclesiological decision to be the one that is at the root of the divisions found in the United Methodist Church.
The United Methodist Church has only been the United Methodist Church since 1968, when the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church. But that was not the first merger that happened. In its 222 years of life, the Methodist church followed (roughly) this pattern:
- The Church of England – John & Charles Wesley’s denomination from birth to grave.
- The Methodist Episcopal Church (1784) – split from CoE.
– Split with creation of a new denomination: African Methodist Episcopal Church (1787)
– Split with creation of a new denomination: Methodist Protestant Church (1830)
- Major denominational division (1844)
– The Methodist Episcopal Church South
– The Methodist Episcopal Church North
- The Methodist Episcopal Church South splits to create a new denomination called the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (1870) which now goes by the name Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (1950).
- Unity restored among the MEC North & South to create The Methodist Church (1939).
- The United Methodist Church established with merger of the Evangelical United Brethren (1968).
And now the word schism is at our doorstep once more, threatening to untie those who claim in their very name to be united. On October 7, 2016 the Wesleyan Covenant Association endorsed a statement (click here to read the entire statement) regarding the Council of Bishops’ process to determine the United Methodist Church’s stance on human sexuality and disciplinary action.
The WCA is calling for the Council of Bishops to expedite the decision making process, bring forth a resolution to be voted on in 2018, and to bring order in the church in the case of disobedience to the Book of Discipline. In the closing sentences of the statement, the WCA advocates their stance clearly: “A plan that requires traditionalists to compromise their principles and understanding of Scripture, including any form of the ‘local option’ around ordination and marriage, will not be acceptable to the member of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, stands little chance of passing General Conference, would not definitively resolve our conflict, and would, in fact, lead to the fracturing of our church.”
For those who have ears to hear, the Wesleyan Covenant Association hints that if homosexuality is condoned by the United Methodist Church at General Conference, they are leaving. They “in fact” know that such a decision will “lead to the fracturing of the church” because they will be one part that concedes the break.
*A note. This article would be written whether it was a progressive agenda, a conservative agenda, or a group upset about guitars in worship. I am addressing the division, not the ideology.
Much of this view stems from a particular biblical conviction and the UMC Book of Discipline in paragraph 304.3 which reads, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” Though there are varied, scholarly interpretations on scripture with regard to all sorts of theology and doctrine, sexuality is the crux of reason for the statement released on 10/7/16 and in fact, the WCA as a whole.
But I, for one, question the integrity of these final words in the WCA statement by appealing to the very books with which they make their arguments. This is not for the sake of arguing a progressive or conservative stance. This is not for the sake of furthering a particular vantage point. This is because there is an implied threat of division in the statement. And ultimately, this is an appeal to seek the very thing the churches at Ephesus were called to seek: unity.
Ephesians 4 prescribes certain behaviors for the Body of Christ to maintain unity. In the third verse in particular, the author writes “make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.” Then a little further down in verse 16 he writes “from him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
It is the call of Christians everywhere to make effort to maintain unity in the Body of Christ, in part because each area is needed do its work toward ushering in the reality of the kingdom. Torn ligaments and shredded muscles do not help the Body of Christ grow in stature or maturity. A split among the United Methodist Church leaves nothing but sects of Untied Methodists scattered throughout.
In regard to a quick reading of the Book of Discipline, the Social Principles states “We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” If the fracturing of the church is a fact, and those whom disagree with a decision whether it be full-inclusivity or to retain the current stance, then we have neglected the very book we vowed to uphold.
I submit that this post does not touch or come close to addressing the many areas of scriptural evidence for either side. Nor does it do proper full exegesis to Scripture or to the Book of Discipline. But I believe it is clear that we are called to make every effort to seek unity in the Body of Christ. We must put forth our best efforts at working together across lines that seem divisive. But it is not our call to agree. It is our call to love.
So if sexuality is not the reason for the possible untying of United Methodism, what is it? The church continues to break because we have forgotten our first love. We have forgotten that the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer gave it all that we may have life abundantly. We have neglected the sick, the poor, and the lame to assert our theology. We have made gods out of our ideologies and thrown out the God who leaves the 99 for the 1. We have left the radical grace of Christ for a moderate intellectual game. We have exchanged our call to be the light of the world shining hope for just another group of people who show no hope that people can get along.
Both of the extremes among United Methodists may celebrate the possibility of schism in the church. But this United Methodist? I will weep.