The United Methodist Split: An Autopsy Report

Introduction

Some time ago, when I was at something of a theological cross-roads, which occurred in the midst of an emotional crisis that came out of a combination of family matters and interpersonal, church-related problems, I considered joining the United Methodist Church.

This wasn’t the first time that I had considered, or even changed denominations. I had done it almost a decade before when I moved from a Presbyterian denomination to the Southern Baptist church. Then, when I made the change, it was for convenience: the Baptist church was closer to my home, as the closest church of my Presbyterian brethren was almost 40 miles away in another town. I had been to the Baptist church that was just a few minutes away when I was younger, went to school with kids who went there, were neighbors to many of the members, so it just made sense.

Another factor that played into the decision was something that really didn’t understand at the time because it was something that was merely taken for granted and many were simply not equipped to deal with because it simply wasn’t on anyone’s radar, even though it is shown consistently in scripture to be one of the easiest and most unforgiving of temptations and unrelenting avenues of sinful expression: sexual immorality.

The particular denomination of Presbyterians, looking back on the time, that I belonged to was something of a test case. My exposure was through my father’s seminary experience as he would encounter liberal theology. Theology that attacked the reliability, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture, he would grow more and more frustrated. Eventually he dropped out of the flagship seminary of the denomination and went to another, more conservative one. But he could see the damage being done. Soon, the rot broke out and when one of the elders of our church was discovered to have been engaged in a long-running sexual affair with another man, the unwillingness of the church to not only act responsibly, by engaging in church discipline to call for repentance, but rather—against the clear commands of scripture—to actually embrace the man without concern for his sin, forced my father to resign and leave.

What’s interesting is that it’s in reflection upon that time, that one can see similar trends and when those trends become routine, and the routine becomes tradition, then division becomes the reality, and this is being seen now in what has been seen as one of the most conservative and traditional denominations in the United States, if not the world: the United Methodist Church.

The Situation

From Yahoo news,

“The United Methodist Church, the third-largest religious denomination in the United States, is set to split over gay marriage and allowing LGBTQ people to become clergy members.

The article continues,

“…a group of Methodists bishops and other leaders finalized a proposal that would allow “traditionalist-minded congregations to form a new denomination” that could continue to oppose same-sex marriage and LGBTQ clergy members. The rest of the United Methodist Church, however, would go on to permit same-sex marriage and allow LGBTQ people to be ordained as clergy.

Critics of the split—like former UMC layman Bill Mefford—, which is about doctrine and application of that doctrine, are basically calling the plan—for lack of a better term—theft. As this post from the denomination’s Insights blog states,

“…what this signing does accomplish is thievery. Fundamentalists who want to deny LGBTQ people their status as children of God and members of the Body of Christ and who have spent their lives bashing the agencies and leaders of the United Methodist institution – and many of whom have also refused to pay apportionments for years, if not decades – all will get a nice fat check for $25 million for all of their work.

The inherent problem with the argumentation is in the theological assumptions made in the underlying presuppositions, and it’s seen in a term and accompanying mindset that overrides any meaningful authority and that is an assertion of God’s Kin-dom over God’s Kingdom.

Carl R. Trueman, writing over at First Things, notes this dichotomy,

“It is odd, however, that this is the issue that has produced the division. Same-sex marriage has not become plausible or imperative by virtue of its own merits. It has only become plausible as a function of much wider and deeper shifts within society’s understanding of the self.

He continues,

“[…That] means that any church where same-sex marriage is significant enough to cause divisive debate is a church where significant parties have already absorbed the spirit of the age regarding personhood, love, sex, and sexuality—whether intentionally or by cultural osmosis. And that in turn means it is a church where significant parties have already abandoned basic Christian anthropology and an orthodox understanding of biblical authority. (Emphasis added)

This attitude of those who are opposed to the financing of the split, like Mefford, is fueled by an anthropocentric theology which places man, and who he wants to be, at the center of all experience. Such a position has to sidestep the rather clear teaching of Scripture that God, in being the Creator of all things, has the right to define the meaning and purpose of all things.

See also: What Makes Something Heresy?

Man is comfortable with a god that places no demands on him, who expects nothing but a hat-tip, an occasional pinch of incense. However, the God of heaven and earth, does place demands. He does have expectations. He doesn’t allow his intentions and purposes to go unheeded.

I recognize the problem, because I have seen it not only in individual churches, but I’ve seen it expressed in myself in my own self-righteousness in the past, especially in the old, “I don’t smoke, drink, or chew, nor hang around with those who do”-attitude. Interestingly, we’re seeing the inverse of this attitude in the rush to embrace those trapped in the alphabet-soup of sexual rebellion.

Indeed it springs from what is perceived to be a good place, a place that seeks to be welcoming and enjoyable to people, but the question is, is that what the church—somewhat regardless of denomination—is supposed to be?

A few years ago a survey was conducted that revealed that the most segregated hour of the week was the 11 o’clock hour on Sunday morning. Moreover, further surveys revealed that in some cases, no one was really bothered by the fact that, more than likely most people would never worship with someone of a different ethnicity, and were not necessarily concerned by that fact. This seems to have disturbed the researchers, and as a general metric of sociological states, it was interesting. Articles from the time (such as this one from Charisma magazine or even this one from CNN) all seem to be stuck on the same problem: diversity.

Indeed, some have rightly recognized that the general problem is largely historical: there were efforts and attitudes from the past that made their mark to deliberately segregate believers, and some have noted that this has been incredibly detrimental to the theology of black churches in general. This again where good intentions have plowed a road that will seem to inherently pave a road straight into the mouth of Hell.

See also: The Poison of “Social Justice”

As these comments by a Lutheran pastor reveal, looking at the problem with the wrong focus cannot help but cause people to abandon what can actually solve the problems that truly need to be addressed. First, he mentions a study by the denomination that looks at memberships of the churches in the denomination by racial demographics within their respective ZIP codes. The study revealed that even though the worldwide membership is incredibly diverse, the ELCA churches in United States are 96% white.

Imagine the surprise in discovering that in a nation that is almost 75% Caucasian that the majority of your denominational membership is white, not to mention that in a state that is has a population that is 77% white that the majority of the membership in those local congregations are white. Don’t take this the wrong way, but there’s only so many people to go around, especially among minority populations.

The pastor asks a legitimate question,

“Why should such statistics matter?

To the biblically minded, one isn’t concerned about quantity as much as quality, and that only in theological terms. However, the pastor throws out such concerns in an attempt to answer his own question,

“Although countless congregations of many denominations earnestly insist that “All Are Welcome,” nowhere has this ever been completely true. In practice, what many churches mean is, “All Are Welcome…to Become Like Us.”

Now, as I previously suggested by citation of some basic demographic facts, any reasonable person would look around and ask, when it comes to our congregation, what is it composed of, why is it composed thusly, and what—if anythingneeds to be done to change it?

Now, if you’re wondering what racial demographics have to do with the alphabet army, keep in mind that they have been beating that drum for years, making the false equivalency between race and sexual proclivities the issue.

The Diagnosis

I’m going to be honest here and say—given my own experience, and you can take that for the anecdotal evidence it is—that there have been attitudes and policies in churches that were imposed upon those of ethnic minorities unfairly. I’ll go ahead and admit that because it’s a simple historical reality. I’ve actually been in a church, where the by-laws actually prevented someone who was not white from being a member of the church. In fact, they cited Scriptural proof-texts to justify it. Of course they were divorced from their original context and improperly applied, but they believed that they were right and they were in line with Scripture in doing so.

Once the error was demonstrated and the by-laws brought in line with Scripture, then the problem was solved, even to the point of one of the deacons, someone who had been so strident against the change, became the leading voice in moving to present the motion to accept the first non-white member of the congregation. And he didn’t do so in spite of any mandate of Scripture, but because of it.

This brings us back to the point then: what are, or should, the standards for membership, and leadership, in any church that claims to be Christian?

The question is, what arguments are being forward to support the claim that “LGBTQ people” should be allowed to be members and participate in leadership?

First of all, we have to ask, what exactly is being said when someone identifies “LGBTQ” as a person? What is actually being said?

The primary point being made is about behavior. It is ultimately about how a person behaves. Now, the question that should be asked, is what kind of behavior is it?

The answer is ultimately sexual behavior. Alright, next question, does Scripture give any teaching about sexual behavior, either positive (what should be done) or negative (should not be done)?

The answer is, of course, yes, and almost everyone would agree that Scripture mandates that a human being’s sexual behavior should be limited to the bonds of marriage.

Next question, does Scripture positively or negatively define marriage?

If the answer to that question poses a problem to the argument being made for the inclusion of so-called “LGBTQ persons” then it proves that “LGBTQ” is not a valid category of human identification.

See also: How “Social Justice” Destroys the Gospel

So, when it comes to the matter of the UMC looking to split over this issue, I’m all for it because it means that there’s still a few people in the church who actually care about what God has said and made known about his creatures and what he expects of them for their good and His glory.

In looking at the argumentation used to support this “inclusion”, I have found 5 consistent and pervasive issues that need to be watched out for.

  • 1. A denial of the sufficiency of Scripture.
  • 2. A rejection of the authority of Scripture.
  • 3. A minimization or outright denial of the necessity of repentance.
  • 4. An overemphasis of empathy.
  • 5. A misunderstanding or misapplication of mercy.
  • Let me break these points down quickly.

    Points 1 and 2 are related, because if Scripture is is insufficient with regard to the nature and purpose of man, then it follows that it cannot have authority over the life of the believer. Point 3 reflects the misunderstanding of the necessity of repentance: not that repentance is necessary for salvation (as if it is something that we do ourselves) rather it is a desire and a response to God’s grace and a reflection of our desire to please and respect our Father and the One who gave his life for us. With point 4, the danger here is to make the faith emotional; believers are not called to be empathetic but to be compassionate. Point 5 makes God’s desire to show mercy override His command and requirement for holiness in the life of the believer.

    All of these stem from an intersecting of what I call neo-Marcionism, hyper-grace, and easy-believism that is based upon a faulty understanding of the gospel that has become only more and more corrupt.

    The rift now manifested in the United Methodist Church is endemic of symptoms seen in other denominations and are indicative of a severe spiritual rot. Expect more collapse. Expect more compromise.

    Image source.