In Times Like These

Today is Memorial Day and unofficially it begins the summer season. More importantly, it is a day to remember those who have died while serving in the U.S. military to protect our country and its values. 

 

Recently a supporter of Renew called and shared with me the incredible story of a Methodist Pastor and his family who have been serving the Lord since the early Twentieth Century. This pastor, Rev. Bert Jones Sr. and his wife Ruth Caye Jones along with their five children were familiar faces at revivals and camp meetings for years leading up to World War II. Later they became Mom and Dad Jones of the popular radio program, “A Visit With The Jones,” a program that began in 1948 and is still running today under the leadership of their daughter Carol Jones Saint.

 

In 1943, seeing the causality list of America soldiers who were moving up the boot of Italy, Ruth Jones turned to God’s Word for comfort. She landed on 2 Timothy 3 where it says, “But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come.” From the inspiration of this verse and the melody of the clock that chimed on her mantle, she began to write a hymn that would become the beloved Gospel song, “In Times like These.” 

 

The words are simple and few; they reflect not only the 2 Timothy passage, but also the comfort of Hebrews 6:19, “this hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast…” The song is also rooted in the comfort that Jesus preached at the end of the Sermon on the Mount  in Luke 6. It tells us that vehement storms come in life, but they are weathered when our lives are built upon The Rock. 

 

How true these words are today. We too live in perilous times. Our enemy is not the Axis powers of World War II. Our enemy is a deadly virus that has spread around the globe and infected more countries than those involved in all the wars of the Twentieth Century. 

 

As we look back today and honor those who gave their lives in battle, let us remember those who are on the front lines battling this virus, and the sick fighting for their lives, and the families who have lost loved ones. Let us pray for each one who has lost a job and all of us who must make decisions on how to proceed with life during our perilous time. And above all, let us remember to share… 

 

 

May you and your family have a meaningful Memorial Day and join those of us at Renew in prayer for our families, our church, our country and our world in this difficult time.

 

Katy Kiser

Renew Network Team Leader

832-381- 0331
renew@goodnewsmag.org

“Do Not Worry” March 2020

Jesus’ words in Matthew 6: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink … but seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Each day as we handle the crisis of the Covid19 virus, new advisories are coming out of the CDC and the White House. We are being told that it is imperative to dramatically restrict our social activity; we are being warned that the death toll depends on our response. And responding we are: schools are closing, churches are offering worship services online, restaurants are shutting down, and travel bans are being respected. There is an understandable amount of anxiety and fear. Most of us have not passed this way before, our lives have been put on hold, our routines have been disrupted. Some parents are asking, “What shall I do with the children for the next few weeks, what if they don’t go back to school until next fall?” We find ourselves in an unfamiliar and frightening situation.

Yet, Jesus tells us: <em>”Do not worry…”</em> Be vigilant, prudent, and take precautions seriously. But take Jesus seriously as well. Given that much of what keeps us busy has been put on hold, we have more time to seek Him, more time to study his Word, and pray. What an opportunity. What a promise that all we worry about will sort out.

When something is taken away, like our normal schedules, that something is usually replaced; the replacement is opportunity. Sure it is normal to react with worry, fear, and resentment. But in Matthew 6, Jesus invites and commands us to seek the higher reality of God’s kingdom. Instead of worry, we can take the opportunity he offers us: opportunity to be at home with our family minus our usual activities that cause life to be hectic. We turn to those around us and reassure them of the love of Christ, which calls us to overcome fear and respond in faith. Many of us will have occasion not only to demonstrate the love of Christ, but to offer Christ to those who do not know him.

I see God moving on my small street of twelve families who are offering to pick up groceries so neighbors do not have to go out. Those who had the foresight to prepare for shortages are offering to share out of their abundance. It has been a time of coming together in ways that we have not before. One neighbor of a different religion has shared that she was educated in a Catholic school; she has opened the door to talk about what we have in common. What an opportunity!

Despite the death, destruction, and concern that comes with a pandemic like the Covid19 virus, God is still in control and we see Him moving among us. I find this to be true in the case of our United Methodist Church. The 2020 General Conference has been postponed. We will not be able to pass the Protocol in May. As yet, we have no idea when that will be. Just like our lives, the General Conference has been put on hold. Although postponed, it will be rescheduled.

Has Jesus provided? Yes He has. Our United Methodist Church operates under the Book of Discipline, which was NOT changed, but affirmed and strengthened at the 2019 General Conference when the Traditional Plan was passed. We still officially follow the same scriptural doctrines that the Church has operated under for over 2,000 years. Will those who have vowed to be unfaithful to our doctrine be so? Certainly. But as many if not more of us will remain faithful to historic Christianity in the United Methodist Church. “Do not worry!” Instead pray and seize the many opportunities that will be given to you to be the Church. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; proclaim His faithfulness.

 

In His Service,
Katy Kiser
Renew Network Team Leader
832-381- 0331
renew@goodnewsmag.org

Why I Support the Separation Proposal

By Rob Renfroe

Responses to the proposed plan for separation could hardly be more divergent. Some are shouting “hallelujah” and others are feeling dismissed, even sold out.

There are several components of the plan that I do not like. In particular, I don’t like the perception it creates. When I was first told about it, I said, “It looks like we’re being paid off to walk away.” It doesn’t look like a separation or two new denominations being birthed. It looks like traditionalists lost, and now we’re leaving.

Having said that, I am in favor of the proposal. Let me tell you why I and most traditionalist leaders favor its passage.

First, I ask myself what’s our goal? What has been our goal, for at least the past 20 years?

For me, it was never about winning or taking over the UM Church. It has been to create a vibrant evangelical Wesleyan church that is fully focused on mission and ministry — a church that is not mired in a dysfunctional and divisive struggle over sexuality.

For me the goal has never been about keeping a name — a name that in many parts of the country is a negative because it has become connected with progressive theology and non-biblical practices.

And it has not been about getting our fair share of the assets. I want that. We deserve that. But that wasn’t the goal. I was not desirous of continuing this ugly, destructive battle so we could receive additional funds. As a matter of fact, in the Yambasu negotiations that brought about the protocol, our (traditionalists’) primary concern was about funding for the Central Conferences, not ourselves.

Most of the leaders in the evangelical renewal groups have long ago accepted that we need separation. We worked for that to be the result coming out of GC 2016 and 2019. However, when we realized separation was off the table, the only option was an enhanced traditional plan — but that was not our first option mainly because we knew it would not solve anything.

Liberal areas of the church would ignore it, progressive bishops would not enforce it, and we would remain where we were before the Traditional Plan was passed. This is exactly what has happened.

Then, new elections were held for GC 2020 delegates. And we suffered real losses. Plus, we continued to hear that some of the African bishops were willing to adopt a regional conference plan that would allow the UM Church in the United States to have its own Book of Discipline and its own sexual ethics.

So, even though we “won” in 2019, there was no guarantee we would win in 2020. And even if we did, it would not really change anything.

Looking at who was elected as jurisdictional delegates, it is unlikely that we will elect a single bishop who would be committed to the full enforcement of the Discipline. And our church structure and constitution have made it nearly impossible to remove a bishop who refuses to enforce the Discipline.

So, the question is: After 47 years, how much longer do we continue to fight the same battle with the same results — good legislation that doesn’t change the reality of the church? How many more years should we spend precious financial, emotional, and spiritual resources on this same issue?

The decision was made that what was most important was allowing churches and annual conferences (where traditionalists are in the majority) to step into a vibrant Wesleyan connection with all their properties and with no payments required to the UM Church or to their annual conferences.

In other words, it was time to move forward in a positive way for the sake of mission and witness.

In all honesty, I fully understand those who are upset about the use of the denomination’s name. I realize the name is important to many, but others view our brand as having been so tarnished that keeping it is not a long-term benefit.

I understand people who say, “The progressives and centrists want to change the UM Church — they should leave, not those of us who want to be who we have always been.” I get it when people say, “GC 2019 was called to resolve this matter and it did. Traditionalists won. Those who want to change the Book of Discipline should leave, not us.” People who say those things are right. That’s the way it should be.

But, these were political negotiations. And in politics, the question is not what should be but what can be. And this is about as good a “can be” as I can imagine.

This move into the future will be difficult for many of our congregations. I am deeply sorry about that. This is where many of our bishops have brought us. There will be pain for many of our churches and annual conferences. I wish I could change that, but this is where we are. What we can do is listen to everyone, acknowledge their very real concerns, and resource them in every way to make this transition less painful than it might be.

I hope people can focus on the positives. Churches will be free to join a new evangelical Wesleyan movement. They will have lower apportionments. They will have more say in who their pastor is. And we will be done with this battle.

One last thought: When we countered those who would move the UM Church away from the Scriptures, it was easy to be unified. But now we are going to create something new. The process will be painful for some and messy for most of us. And we will have real differences about how the new church is to be structured. But we must stay together. There’s something bigger than whether the new church will have bishops, and if so what their tenure will be, what the new name will be, or even agreeing on all the ins and outs of ordination.

We are being given the privilege and the responsibility of beginning a new denomination — one that we will share with people like you, one that will be committed to the Scriptures as God’s word and to Jesus Christ as Lord of all, one that will be led by men and women, black, white, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Asian — whom we admire and respect.

This is a future we can look forward to. Let’s go there together.

Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News. 

Count Me In

By Carolyn Moore

I have been on social media enough in the last few days to know that the latest plan for denominational separation along theological lines is not without its detractors. I’m not among them. This agreement comes to me as a deep relief. For several years I have worked as a member of a much larger group toward some kind of resolution. I realize just how much time, energy, prayer, and even compromise – poured out on all sides of our current divide – it took to get here. I’m breathing a sigh of relief and praying for the passage of this protocol at the 2020 General Conference. Let me share why.

Without context, the headlines in the national media might seem harsh and this plan to separate may come as a surprise. But for many who have been on this journey for years, this represents a significant and hopeful step forward. Most headlines last week led with the idea that the crux of the crisis is a disagreement over our sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and the ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy. I want to emphasize that the crisis in the UM Church does not rest on just these issues. Others agree. In a recent essay accurately entitled, “The Sad, Necessary Division of the United Methodist Church” David French writes:

“The secular media will cast the divide primarily in the terms it understands—as focused on “LGBT issues” – but that’s incomplete. The true fracturing point between Mainline and Evangelical churches is over the authority and interpretation of scripture. The debate over LGBT issues is a consequence of the underlying dispute, not its primary cause… there is a strain of Protestant Christianity that views the Bible as valuable but not infallible or inerrant. Evangelical Christians, by contrast, strongly dissent from that view.”

That seems an accurate statement to me. Our divide has been forming for years over multiple issues that are very real and very deep. They strike at the fundamentals of historical Christian orthodoxy. How we interpret scripture and relate to the person and work of Jesus Christ is at the headwaters of this crisis, but it is also important to note that our inability to hold one another accountable where we disagree only exacerbates the problem. When some of our leaders are unwilling to hold us accountable to the time-honored way we make decisions at our General Conferences, the result is a kind of disorder and dysfunction that is excruciating.

The hard reality we must admit today is that while we traditionalists have won votes at General Conference, we have not really held the line of orthodoxy within the UM Church. While we are thankful for the reaffirmation of our teachings, some of our American colleagues openly resist what we have reaffirmed. With no theological or ethical accountability and no will among many bishops to establish accountability, there is no line left to hold. Most of us – from across the theological divide – recognize we can no longer go on this way.

Some would implore us to stay in the current situation and keep voting for traditional values at General Conference, as if we might eventually wear down our progressive colleagues and compel them to leave. I have zero faith in that eventuality. A colleague in my conference who serves on the board of a progressive movement within the UM Church told me without blinking an eye, “We will never leave.” And I believe her. Why would she? With accountability on these matters gone – and it is – her approach is working to a degree; it is a functional response. So, we frustrate her sincerely held views on very important matters, and in return she and colleagues in her theological camp frustrate our sincerely held beliefs. This is not a healthy dynamic for a supposedly united church.

Friends, let’s support this protocol. Let’s get ourselves out of an Egypt filled with conflict and bitterness. The protocol might not be the promised land, but once we are out of the Egypt we are living in, we traditionalists can participate with the Holy Spirit in building a vital and fruitful movement that reflects our faith and the faith of our fathers. Our ground – the ground I want to be standing on – is on the other side of separation, where we can make choices from a place of strength, and without the anarchy we live in now.

Please pray for our UM Church. These are hard days for many people. I sense the anxiety among my clergy colleagues and cannot imagine the stress our bishops must be carrying. There are so many more questions than answers for how this will play out structurally, so they have great responsibilities on their shoulders. If we can manage this well, however, our effort will be historic. We are all praying for a better witness than what we have had.

We grieve the pain of so many in the UM Church who really do not want any kind of separation. We hear the words of Jesus who said of divorce in general that Moses allowed it only because of the hardness of our hearts. “But this wasn’t so from the beginning,” he said. If you have ever been divorced, you understand that sometimes the thing we want least is also the only option left. And sometimes that thing represents hardness. We grieve the public witness of irreconcilable differences, and I grieve my own shortcomings and the things I do not even know that I do not know. It seems right to approach anything like this with deep humility, understanding the impact it can have on a lost and hurting world.

The UM Church is my tribe, and I will be sad to separate from it. But before I am a United Methodist, I am a follower of Jesus. I will preach the faith of our fathers – a faith that billions have lived and died for. I will not step back from that Gospel. It is life to me. It is life to us. It is our hope and our peace.


The Rev. Dr. Carolyn Moore is the founding and lead pastor of Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia. She serves as the vice-chairwoman of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.

Are Traditionalists “Leaving” The United Methodist Church?

The recently announced separation plan called the “Protocol on Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” has aroused many reactions in and beyond the church. Some are satisfied and even hopeful that the long-running conflict in our church can finally be over and traditional and evangelical United Methodists will be free to pursue ministry without being hampered by discord or a dysfunctional denominational structure. Local churches will get to keep their buildings, property, and assets and will need to make no extra payments to move into the new traditionalist Methodist denomination.

Others are upset and angry over provisions of the agreement they believe are unfair. We have heard the criticisms of the plan. We understand them. Many of them are legitimate. Clearly, there are several unfair provisions. I will be addressing them in future articles.

The most common criticism I have heard of the agreement is that traditionalists are leaving The United Methodist Church, rather than it being an equal separation. The follow-up comment is that since traditionalists “won” the vote in the St. Louis special General Conference in 2019, it should be those who want to change the church who have to leave, not those who want to maintain the current doctrine and discipline of the church.

This is a perfectly valid point. In a perfect and just world, those who want to change the church’s understanding of marriage and ordination would leave and those who want to keep the church’s long-standing teachings could remain. We do not live in a perfect or just world, however.

This agreement did not come down from God on Mt. Sinai like the Ten Commandments. It is a negotiated agreement worked out between factions in the church that deeply disagree with one another and do not trust one another. The fact that there is an agreement at all is astounding and a testament to the dedication of the participants and the perseverance of the mediator.

In negotiated settlements, it is not what is right or fair that determines the outcome, but what is possible. I’m convinced this agreement is the best possible agreement that could be reached and is preferable to all other likely alternatives.

 

What happened in 2019?

At the 2019 General Conference, traditionalists made a good-faith effort to bring about unity in the church through compliance with the Book of Discipline, the governing document of the church. It maintained the current teaching and standards of the church, while attempting to increase accountability of bishops and clergy to live by those standards.

Since February, it has become readily apparent that this attempt at unity through compliance did not work. More than half the annual conferences in the U.S. declared their opposition to the provisions enacted in the Traditional Plan. A number of annual conferences and bishops have declared that they will not abide by the provisions of the Discipline. The Greater New Jersey Annual Conference is even trying to write its own Book of Discipline!

This widespread disarray indicates that the church cannot achieve unity through compliance. The gate-keepers on enforcing the Discipline are the bishops. If some bishops are unwilling to enforce the Discipline and plan to simply ignore its requirements, there is nothing the larger church can do about it. The accountability process for bishops envisioned in the Traditional Plan was ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. The accountability process proposed by Bishop Scott Jones and others that relies upon the Council of Bishops to hold other bishops accountable depends upon having a majority of the Council willing to exercise that accountability. At this point and into the foreseeable future the majority of the Council favors changing the church’s requirements and will decline to hold colleague bishops accountable.

Since unity through compliance is not possible, and unity through allowing for “local option” (each annual conference and local church making its own rules about marriage and ordination) does not have the votes to pass General Conference, the only apparent way to resolve the conflict is some form of separation. The recent agreement recognizes this fact and provides a way for the church to go in two different directions. We should not discount the fact that, for the first time, some of our leading bishops and other church leaders have finally acknowledged that separation is the only viable way forward for the church.

 

How to Separate

The fairest way to separate would be to dissolve The United Methodist Church and create two or more new denominations with new names. Such an approach is unworkable because it requires changes to the constitution, which needs a two-thirds vote at General Conference and a two-thirds vote of all the annual conference members (which could take up to two years). Most self-described centrists and progressives are against dissolving the church, as are many Africans and Europeans. Dissolving the church and starting over would most likely not reach even a majority vote, let alone the two-thirds vote required.

So any form of separation that General Conference adopts will have to have a continuing United Methodist Church and a group or groups that form something new. The closest to an equal plan of separation under this precondition is the Indianapolis Plan. However, that plan did not resolve the contentious issue of a division of assets. Furthermore, it encountered fierce opposition from key leaders in the centrist camp, who believe it comes too close to dissolving the denomination. To pass the Indianapolis Plan would require a major fight at General Conference, which could degenerate into a repeat of the vitriol of St. Louis. And its passage is by no means certain, as the margin for traditionalists is projected to be very slim.

The leaders of the Renewal and Reform Coalition decided that it would be better to support a plan that is less fair, but promised a definitive end to the conflict, was much more certain to pass, and would give traditionalists a way to separate while keeping their buildings and property.

Throughout the last year, many progressives and centrists have vowed not to leave the church, but to stay and continue to fight to change the church’s teachings and standards. It is true that a few very progressive annual conferences and a few high-profile progressive leaders have announced plans to prepare to possibly leave the denomination. But the vast majority would stay, and the fight would continue. It is therefore unrealistic to hope that most centrists and progressives would voluntarily leave the church. No matter what good legislation General Conference adopts, if there is no way to obtain compliance, the Discipline is not worth the paper it is written on. Any attempt on traditionalists’ part to keep on fighting for the current teachings of the church would entail another 20 years of conflict, rebellion, disobedience, and vitriol that would destroy the church. While attempting to force out those unwilling to live by the Discipline, the church would also lose many traditionalists who are sick of the fighting and want to maximize their ministry of the Gospel rather than spend millions of dollars, time, and energy fighting a battle against those who will not be convinced.

If we were to fight to hang on to The United Methodist Church, traditionalists would also be saddled with trying to either maintain or reform an intractable bureaucracy that is often counterproductive to local church ministry. Every single general board or agency except United Methodist Communications endorsed the One Church Plan. Most of those boards and agencies are staffed by people who want to change the church’s teachings and do not share our traditional theological perspective. To reform and reclaim these agencies would be a monumental task that would again drain valuable resources from actual ministry. Better to walk away from these entrenched agencies and start something new that can be much more streamlined and oriented toward resourcing and empowering local church ministry. If we can drastically lower denominational overhead, we can pour more resources into supporting our central conferences outside the U.S. and engaging in innovative, effective ministry to the unchurched and marginalized people in our world.

The use of the United Methodist name and cross and flame logo has also been of great concern. Once again, we have heard the concerns. We understand them. I will be writing on that issue in a separate blog after the implementing legislation for the separation agreement is finalized. I will also be addressing in a future article the apparent unfairness of the amount of money traditionalists will receive from the general church assets that generations of traditional United Methodists have contributed to over the years.

It is understandable for some to see it as though traditionalists will be “leaving” The United Methodist Church. A better way of describing it is that traditionalists will be separating from a denomination that has left them theologically and seizing this opportunity to create a new traditionalist Methodist movement. No, this agreement is not as fair to traditionalists as we hoped it would be. But it promises a definitive end to the conflict in our denomination and provides an unparalleled opportunity for a fresh start that can create a new denomination that can go forward in unity of belief, vision, and mission. When we have had a chance to process our anger, frustration, disappointment, and grief, we can either choose to dig in our heels in an unrealistic hope for a better deal, or we can focus on the positives of what this deal makes possible for us. I, for one, am excited about what the Lord can and will do through a new expression of Methodism. We can walk into this new future together.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

Renew Christmas 2019

“Behold I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun!
Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.”

 

Isaiah 43:19

Much of Isaiah unfolds God’s grand scheme for the restoration of His people. The prophet announced that something new was going to happen. God’s vast divine plan, made before the foundation of the world, was going to take a new turn. The long awaited Messiah was going to be born.

For the Israelites, life leading up to the birth of the Christ Child had not been easy. They had experienced many challenges over the centuries as they struggled with obedience and fidelity to God. The Jews were looking for the Messiah to liberate them from the unjust Roman regime. But He would come with an infinitely greater mission. He would come to save humanity from sin itself.

For the sake of peace and power, the Pharisees and Priests had compromised with the Romans. It was a compromise not unlike the compromises that the mainline churches, including The United Methodist Church, have made to accommodate our cultural reality. Throughout Israel’s history, they experienced times when, in today’s vernacular, they needed a ‘do-over’, a coming back to their God and His plan for them as a people. And Praise God, we too are being called to a renewed commitment.

As Keith Boyette, President of the Wesley Covenant Association, proclaimed in his powerful address at the WCA Global Gathering in November, “God is birthing a new Wesleyan movement.” One man in Florida put it well, “I left the Global Gathering lifted, encouraged and more deeply committed. I am convinced we are in the right place for such a time as this. We are where God wants us; we are on the right side of history.”

We all have a role to play in this new movement. This was brought out beautifully by Cara Nicklas, a lay member of the Oklahoma Annual Conference. At the WCA gathering, she reminded clergy and laity that we are all ambassadors for Christ; in fact each of us, she said, has a role to play as theologians in the new church — the Next Methodism. She challenged laity to grasp a thorough understanding of the issues that divide the church and help prepare congregants for the decisions that lie ahead.

Dr. William Abraham, the Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, proclaimed that the church is at a turning point and the choice is clear. He explained that Jesus presents us with two paths: a broad way that leads to destruction, and a narrow way that leads to life. We will either be a part of a church that is built on sex, gender, and rebellion. Or we will be a church built on the Lord’s teaching on marriage and creation – and most importantly, Divine Revelation and the Creeds.

We are on the threshold of restoration where Methodism will throw off the constraints of the world that caused the church to entertain trendy, compromised theology that has led to decline. Before us lies the opportunity for our church to be one whose identity is in Christ, built on God’s revelation of Himself, and one which is open to and led by God’s own Spirit.

Now is not a time for fear or discouragement. But it is a time of decision and action. As we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, let us remember that God’s grand scheme has not changed. His divine plan, embodied in Christ Jesus, is the greatest gift of all. Let us not forget the hope that is ours this Christmas. God has not forsaken us, His Church, or His Creation. For, Behold, He is about to do something new. See, He has already begun.

***
As team leader of Renew, I thank all of you who support our work with your prayers and financial giving. In 2019, at the request of pastors and laywomen, Renew has helped churches to refocus women’s ministry on a mission driven program that leads to spiritual growth and biblical knowledge. Next May, Renew will represent evangelical, orthodox women at the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. Your end of year gift will make this possible. If you haven’t made a contribution to RENEW recently, we trust you will. I promise you it will be put to good work.

You can continue to stand with us by going on the Renew Website and download or print the Donations Form. Or you may designate a check to Renew Network and send to:

Good News
P.O. Box 132076
The Woodlands, TX 77393-2076
Fax: 832.813.5327

In His Service,
Katy Kiser
Renew Network Team Leader
832-381- 0331
renew@goodnewsmag.org

Mexit: Why United Methodism Is Coming Untied by Chris Ritter

by Chris Ritter

Note: This is an article prepared for some friends overseas who requested a summary of what is happening in the world’s largest Methodist denomination. I offer it here as an opportunity for those not previously engaged with UMC issues to catch up and understand the season in which we find ourselves. This might be a good resource to share with your church council and other key leaders.

United Methodists finds themselves in a season of sober negotiations.  The 12.4-million-member global denomination, many believe, has arrived at a point of irreconcilable differences following a February 2019 General Conference in St. Louis.  The traditional view of marriage and human sexuality was upheld with the help of the growing international representation. Vocal opposition to the vote among Progressives in America and Western Europe has caused even stalwart institutional voices to now admit the denomination cannot continue as currently configured.

The special called 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church grew from a moment of crisis at the 2016 quadrennial General Conference when the rejection of liberalizing legislation sparked rumors of formal division.  By a narrow vote, the body decided to table matters related to sexuality and to instruct the bishops to form a commission to bring back recommendations. The urgency of the situation was heightened by the post-General Conference election of Bishop Karen Oliveto, a lesbian clergy unanimously selected by the progressive Western Jurisdiction of the U.S. church.

The ideologically diverse 32-member ‘Commission on a Way Forward’ met for months and developed three models for solving the impasse.  A Traditional Plan affirming the current positions of the church was initially left in draft form because of perceived lack of support among the bishops. Instead, the bishops offered their support to the ‘One Church Plan’ (OCP) which changed the definition of marriage to the union of ‘two adults.’  Modest protections were offered for traditionalist conferences and congregations that did not want to ordain practicing LGBTQ persons or perform same-sex weddings.  A more ambitious ‘Connectional Conference Plan’ to restructure the church into three covenants relative to homosexuality failed to gain traction.

The Bishop’s majority recommendation of the One Church Plan ultimately reached consensus only with the promise that the Traditional Plan would also be brought in full legislative form. African bishops seem to have insisted upon this.  So General Conference 2019 convened with three primary plans for consideration amidst what was described as the most prayed-for United Methodist General Conference in history.

In spite of the high-profile support offered for the OCP, the Traditional Plan was approved by a 54% margin at the four-day global conference.  Key to this victory was a coalition of Africans, U.S. Traditionalists, Filipinos, and Eastern Europeans. Due to parliamentary delays from the floor, some measures were passed without the amendments required to make them constitutional.  But the remaining components of the Traditional Plan comprised significant accountability to church teachings.  These include prohibitions against bishops ordaining clergy that do not meet church standards, limits upon charges that can be summarily dismissed by bishops, and minimum sentences for performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.

FALLOUT

Rather than settle matters, General Conference 2019 served to further expose long-standing divisions.  Several conferences in the U.S. and Western Europe vowed defiance. Full-page ads were taken out in U.S. newspapers to apologize for the actions of the denomination.  Some African conferences have experienced loss of financial partnerships in America.

Self-described Progressives and Centrists in the U.S. formed a coalition called UMC-Next at a meeting convened at United Methodism’s largest congregation, the 22,000-member Church of the Resurrection in Kansas. Rev. Adam Hamilton, the church’s founding pastor, has grown increasingly vocal about his support of same-sex marriage after moving from the traditional position several years ago.  The UMC-Next Group indicated by a 57% margin their desire to form a new denomination.  The group ultimately decided, however, to stay in the church through the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

Using GC2019 as a galvanizing event, UMC-Next successfully elected more Progressive/Centrist U.S. delegates to GC2020, touting a majority in all five U.S. jurisdictions of the church.  They seem to have fallen slightly short, however, of the majority they need to overturn church positions.

UMC-Next is designed as a foil to the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), a traditionalist organization formed in the aftermath of GC2016.  Keith Boyette, the organization’s president, has grown WCA to representation in every region served by the global denomination.  The position of WCA is that, given the post GC-2019 situation, there should be an official and equitable division of the United Methodist Church for the sake of mission.  A book of Doctrine and Discipline is being developed that will serve as the template for the ‘Next Methodism’ that WCA envisions. Features of this Discipline include a stream-lined structure, more theological cohesion, and reframing the role of bishops as spiritual leaders instead of administrators.

WCA helps comprise the Renewal and Reform Coalition, a cadre of organizations aimed at restoring United Methodism to its biblical roots. Another group, the UM Africa Initiative, coordinates these renewal efforts with the growing African Church.  Demographic trends indicate that Africans, already 40% of church membership, will one day represent a majority of votes in the General Conference.  Less exposed to U.S. infighting, Africans generally favor preservation of the current institution along with biblical reform.  But dwindling numbers in the U.S. church make American evangelicals impatient for relief.  Although they ‘won’ the vote at GC2019, they desire immediate freedom from entrenched institutional structures, open rebellion among clergy, and bishops who refuse to exercise accountability to the Discipline.

Progressive voices are organized through the work of the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC). Member organizations include the Reconciling Ministries Network (an organization dedicated to full LGBTQ inclusion), Methodists in a New Direction (MIND), Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus.

A new organization, UM-Forward, emerged from a May 18, 2019 summit and declares an agenda of liberation for ‘Persons of Color, Queer and Trans people.’  This group has recently distinguished themselves from other Progressives as avowed Liberationists.   They issued a statement on August 28 sharply criticizing the both Centrists and the Reconciling Ministry Network for a perceived willingness to acquiesce to plans that allow the Traditional view to remain partially in effect in the UMC.

INADEQUATE FOUNDATIONS?

The United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 as a merger between The Methodist Church (at one time perhaps the largest Christian denomination in the US) and the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB), a smaller denomination with Pietist roots among German American populations.  Forged at the height of the Ecumenical Movement, the young UM denomination emphasized a theological method over a fixed set of theological beliefs.  Alongside the Methodist Articles of Faith and the EUB Confession of Faith, it placed ‘Our Theological Task,’ a statement ensconcing Albert Outler’s ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ of Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason.  The church would not be held together by doctrine but by a commitment to broad, generous principles drawn from these sources.

It did not take long for the deficiencies of ‘Our Theological Task’ to surface.  Besides being not particularly Wesleyan, it failed to provide much doctrinal guidance.  1988 revisions clarified that Scripture is the primary source for Christian theology and not just a first among equals.

Further patches to the foundations of The United Methodist Church came in 2004 when ‘making disciples of Jesus Christ’ was accepted as the denominational mission statement.  The change was made with little fanfare, but this memorable biblical mandate became a useful tool to focus the work of the church.  The phrase ‘for the transformation of the world’ was added in 2008 to satisfy concerns that the statement did not adequately capture the mandate to impact societal structures.  The mission statement has competed with the 2001 UMC advertising slogan ‘Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors’ which some have used to place inclusion and diversity as the core principles of the denomination.

American United Methodism tends to be strongest numerically in those areas of the United States with a more traditional outlook. The entire Western Jurisdiction, covering a third of the nation, only has 300,000 members, compared to 2.6 million in the U.S. Southeast.  Some of the more Progressive U.S. conferences are declining faster than their more traditional counterparts.

But perhaps the most significant force for reform has been the demographic explosion of the church in Africa.  The UMC there is nearly uniform in its theological orthodoxy and traditional views on marriage and human sexuality.  In the last decade alone, one African Central Conference has jumped 329 percent.  This is while membership in the U.S. and Europe has been on a fifty-year decline, losing five million members since the church’s formation. Total African membership now stands at 4.9 million compared to the 7 million in the U.S.  Efforts in 2008 to limit African influence in U.S. decision-making failed ratification.

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

Admitting the denomination needs to break up and accomplishing this are very different matters.  The centralized system ensconced in the Discipline makes structural change difficult.  The general agencies of the United Methodist Church hold perhaps $1.3 billion in assets and are under majority U.S. control. American annual conferences, the financial breadbasket of the denomination, hold significant assets and are in some places as divided ideologically as the denomination at large.

Of the $6.3 billion in annual donations given through 44,000 congregations, perhaps something over $100 million annually flows to work in the non-U.S. conferences.  African conferences would disproportionately suffer if funding was abruptly ended.  UM congregations currently hold net assets worth some $65 billion and most of these are tied to the denomination through the historic trust clause.  Other U.S. denominations, like the Episcopal Church, have spent millions of dollars in lawsuits over disputed properties following unsanctioned divisions over human sexuality and marriage.

GC2020 LOOMING LARGE

The fact that the GC2020 legislation deadline is September 18 of this year has triggered a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity over the summer months.  Unlike the time leading up to GC2019, there is no single group mandated to surface solutions.  Work is being done by ad hoc groups.

Bishop Yambasu of Sierra Leone has assembled a multi-lateral group in the U.S. for the purpose of ongoing dialog.  UM-Forward, the liberationist group, has promised to bring their own plan, but the details have not yet been released.  Attendees to the Africa Initiative’s Prayer and Leadership Summit in Nairobi in August 2019 were briefed on the three plans that have emerged to date.

The Bard-Jones Plan was authored by two U.S. bishops, one Progressive and one Traditional.  It calls for everyone to vacate the UMC by exiting into one of three new denominations. The general agencies of the church would become autonomous non-profit organizations or be variously shared among the ‘new expressions.’  Only the General Council of Finance and Administration would be left to mop up any administrative and legal obligations left by the old denomination.

The UMC-Next group offered a plan that envisions Traditionalist congregations leaving with their properties intact to form a new denomination.  Enforcement of restrictions against same-sex marriage would be halted.  The remaining church would hold a special General Conference to officially remove the restrictions and re-organize for the future.

The ‘Indianapolis Plan’ comes from multilateral negotiations among a group comprised of Progressives, Centrists, and Traditionalists who believe it is time to end the conflict. This plan is still in draft form and envisions two or three new denominations being birthed by United Methodism.  U.S. Centrists would inherit the institution after a fair division of resources.  U.S. Traditionalists at the Indianapolis table are trying to secure institutional autonomy for themselves and a fair share of denominational assets for Africa.

A TIME OF DECISION

Amidst all the posturing and distress, hope remains among Evangelical United Methodists for a renewed Connection that can recover the ‘spirit, doctrine, and discipline’ with which we first set out.  The Wesleyan Covenant Association has received overtures from autonomous Methodist denominations in the Americas seeking greater international connection.  Irish-born Billy Abraham, Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Dallas’ Perkins School of Theology has written both of a ‘Mexit’ and the alternative possibility for United Methodism emerging as a ‘unique, orthodox, global denomination.’  Either way, few believe that the UMC will be constituted as it is currently a year or so from now. The next few months should reveal where the various constituencies of the church will fall.

Photo Information: Florida delegates Rachael Sumner (front left) and the Rev. Jacqueline Leveron (front right) of the Florida Conference join in prayer with bishops and other delegates at the front of the stage before a key vote on church policies about homosexuality during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service (UMNS). Used with permission.

What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part II) By Thomas Lambrecht

What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part II) By Thomas Lambrecht

A recent survey by United Methodist Communications indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

In a previous blog, I examined the implications of this finding. Last week I delved more deeply into specific beliefs United Methodists hold about Jesus Christ, who is the center of our faith. Today, I want to look at some other Christian doctrines and what United Methodists believe about them.

The Bible

What do United Methodists believe about the Bible? The survey posed a number of statements about the Bible, from which respondents had to choose one. Three of the statements emphasized the divine origin of Scripture, with different levels of trust in the specifics:
“The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally.”
“The Bible is the inspired word of God with no errors, some verses symbolic.”
“The Bible is the inspired word of God with some factual or historic errors.”
Traditionalists were nearly equally divided between these three statements (30, 28, and 30 percent). Moderates decisively preferred the third statement (47 percent), while 15 percent approved the first statement and 26 percent the second. Liberals also preferred the third statement (37 percent), while distancing themselves from the first statement (4 percent) and moderately supporting the second (22 percent).

Strikingly, 88 percent of both traditionalists and moderates affirmed the inspiration of Scripture (approving one of the above three statements), while only 63 percent of liberals did.

One-third (34 percent) of progressives supported the human origins of the Bible by affirming one of these two statements:
“The Bible is not inspired. It tells how writers understood the ways and principles of God.”
“The Bible is just another book of teachings written by men.”
Less than ten percent of moderates and conservatives agreed with either of these statements.

The significant minority of progressives holding a low view of Scripture’s inspiration fits with the finding that only six percent of progressives chose Scripture as their most authoritative source in personal theology.

Encouragingly, only one percent across the board of all United Methodists thought that “the Bible is an ancient book with little value today.”

What is salvation?

As expected, 89 percent of traditionalists believe that “salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God,” while 80 percent of moderates and only 69 percent of liberals agreed. Fully 31 percent of liberals (and 20 percent of moderates) believe that “all people will die saved.” This strain of universalism is not consistent with our Wesleyan theology and acts as another brake on evangelism. (If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency to proclaim the Gospel.)

Disturbingly, only 33 percent of conservatives and 15 percent of liberals believe that “salvation is through faith alone,” while 67 percent of conservatives and 85 percent of liberals believe “salvation is a combination of faith and what we do in this world.” Salvation by faith alone is a cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, of which we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary. As Protestants, we believe that good works follow from faith, but they do not contribute to our salvation. That depends upon faith in Jesus Christ alone, through his death and resurrection.

The influence of American evangelicalism on United Methodism is seen in the fact that 41 percent of conservatives believe that “once you are saved, you are always saved.” One-third of liberals and 37 percent of moderates agreed with this statement. One of the primary distinctives of Wesleyan theology (in contrast to today’s more common Calvinist theology) is that “a person can fall away and lose their salvation.” “Backsliders” (as they were once called) can return to faith through repentance and once again be in right standing with God. But it seems on this question many of our members are more Calvinist than Wesleyan.

Another cardinal Wesleyan doctrine is that “God’s grace is available to every person.” Our people have gotten that message, as it is affirmed by over 95 percent across the board. Mystifyingly, while 97 to 99 percent of moderates and conservatives believe in God as “creator of heaven and earth,” only 87 percent of progressives affirmed that statement.

Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of conservatives believe in a literal heaven, in contrast to 73 percent of progressives and 80 percent of moderates. At the same time, 82 percent of conservatives believe in a literal hell, in contrast to only 50 percent of progressives and 67 percent of moderates.

These beliefs about salvation do influence how effectively local churches proclaim and live out the Gospel. If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency or even any point in trying to get non-believers to believe in Jesus. The belief by supermajorities that “what we do in this world” impacts our salvation plays into the American emphasis on doing, rather than being, and upon the idea that we in some sense earn our own salvation. The prevalence of “once saved, always saved” thinking minimizes the need to authentically live out our faith and continue growing in our faith. Yet, even these three beliefs are contradictory, meaning that we have not helped our members think through a coherent and consistent theology of salvation.

Conclusion

The survey questions were not worded as carefully as I would have liked. Multiple interpretations of some of the questions could easily have somewhat distorted the results. However, taken together, I think the survey results show a clear theological difference between conservatives and liberals in general. Sometimes, moderates fall in the middle, but on many questions, moderates are closer to traditionalists in their views. It is this underlying theological difference that accounts for the depth of disagreement in our denomination. One might almost say that different groups in our church are operating according to different theological worldviews or different doctrinal systems. There are very few of the questions on which there is theological agreement.

Where there is much agreement and a small number of areas of disagreement, it is easier to preserve an overall unity and “agree to disagree” on those few issues of disagreement. However, where the disagreement seems clear and widespread over many issues, it is much more difficult to preserve unity. That is the situation that faces our church today.

The survey also makes it clear that systematic, clear teaching of United Methodist doctrine and theology is sorely needed in our churches. Perhaps we tend to focus so much on preaching and teaching that hits the “felt needs” of our people that we forget about the importance of laying the theological foundation on which the more practical teachings of the faith are based. And we have forgotten how practically relevant those foundational teachings really are. Our church’s ministry needs more theological depth.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

Welcome to Renew Network

Ongoing Aftermath of General Conference 2019 by Katy Kiser

Dear Renew Network,

Ongoing Aftermath of General Conference 2019

A month after the 2019 General Conference in St Louis, where the work of the Commission on a Way Forward was received and the Traditional Plan was passed, the United Methodist Women’s annual Program Advisory Group and Board of Director’s met in Nashville, TN.  I attended the meetings as a press representative.

At the opening plenary of the Program Advisory Group, Bishop William McAlilly preached from his personal experience, which has given him  compassion for the marginalized LGTBQ+ community. He told the women that UMW was needed more now than they ever have been, because of the injustice done by the passage of the Traditional Plan. He asked, “How would you feel if you were told you are  incompatible?” I detected a strong note of incredulity in both McAlilly and Harriett Olsen. They seemed truly shocked and grieved that the Traditional Plan had prevailed in St. Louis.

I was expecting the general tenor of disappointment expressed at the UMW  meetings in March. The last day of General Conference, when the One Church Plan had not passed, UMW put out a press release that affirmed the position they announced at the Fall 2018 Board of Directors Meeting: they will be staying in relationship with all women in the Global UMC even if there is schism. They announced they are in solidarity with the LGTBQ+ community, which is in pain. Even before the 2019 General Conference, the UMW staff had put out a spiritual growth study titled, The Bible and Human Sexuality, where the marriage culture was questioned and traditional morality was explained away by the rejection of laws that came out of a society dominated by men. Can the UMW National staff expect to be in relationship with traditionalists when they have made it clear that their heart is with the progressives?

Before we consider that question, we should ask, is the passage of the Traditional Plan unjust as McAlily implied?  First of all, centrist/progressives are mistaken to say that those who identify as LGTBQ+ are being called incompatible by the majority of the church who supported the Traditional Plan. No one is being labeled incompatible; but certain behavior is incompatible with clear straight forward teaching in the Bible. It is behavior that has been questioned – not people.

While all persons are of sacred worth, it is clear that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It is in the church where we are encouraged to be in a process (sanctification) whereby we overcome sin. Somehow many in the church have bought into the idea that behavior once understood as sin is now to be understood as a right, or even employed to define who we are. Even worse, once condemned behavior has come to define how some think God made them to be. If God made sinners to be thieves, murderers, and the rest of Paul’s list in I Corinthians 6, why would Paul say “ and such were some of you?” And if God made Cain to rebel, why did He warn Cain that “sin is crouching at the door waiting to devour you!” We are not our sin; we are overcomers of sin if we accept what God says in His Word and that which He has done for us. In the words of Michael W. Hannon, “I am not my sin. I am not my temptation to sin. By the blood of Jesus Christ, I have been liberated from this bondage.

Our society has accepted the current psychological trend to categorize individuals by sexual orientation. The idea that anyone gets their identity from their feelings of attraction to the opposite or same sex is simply a fallacy for which there is no scriptural warrant. Sadly, many in the church have bought into this thinking. They champion a warped sense of justice and work to obtain rights for the LGBTQ+ among us and the acceptance of their agendas and actions. Christian identity is not rooted in sexuality but in Christ himself.

United Methodist Women have made no secret of the fact that they accept new modern interpretations of scripture. This is particularly true in the area of sexuality but not only there.  Not too long ago, a UMW woman wrote to me about a UMW spiritual life study “Embracing Wholeness: An Earth Perspective for Covenantal Living.” Actually it was a study to support the UMW policy on Climate Justice. This UMW woman was disturbed by the author’s claim that the earth and creation was being equated with God Himself. Particularly disturbing to her was the author’s comparison of the death of her cow with the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross. Unfortunately there were multiple unscriptural distortions in the study.

Recently, another woman wrote to Renew wanting to connect with other traditional evangelicals women in her area. She wrote to say that:

We have become more and more disappointed in the national UMW group. We do not agree with the social liberal agenda that is promoted in the UMW. The reading program books are becoming increasingly non-biblical and promote society’s way of viewing the world.

So to answer the question, can the National UMW stay in ministry and mission with both traditionalists and progressives? The answer is probably not.  Trying to be all things to all people has failed the church, because as scripture has become reinterpreted and repurposed, that which unified us was lost. When the church was asked to change the definition of marriage and its standards for ordination, it was a step too far.

Since the passage of the Traditional Plan in St. Louis, it has become clear that many centrists and progressives do not want to stay in a church that is unwilling to change its traditional beliefs on marriage and ordination. Traditionalists have been concerned for some time. For different reasons, traditional evangelical women have been leaving UMW in a steady stream for years, and at a larger rate than the loss of denominational membership. Most give reasons similar to the ones I have cited.

We are in a time of waiting. The Traditional Plan has passed, but the dividing issue still divides; and it remains to be seen how this division will play out. Yet, we do not have to wait to see the final outcome to begin to throw off that which has become ineffective and seriously troubling. The time is now to move into deeper Christ centered ministry and mission that we may see the transformational power of our Savior and the Holy Spirit. God is at work. We should be too.

Please pray for the churches like the two examples I have shared. They represent many more who are looking to disengage from ministry that cannot deliver what is so needed. Pastors and women’s leaders have written to request a copy of the Remodel series. (Read about it here) If your women’s or men’s ministry is looking for a resource to refocus and engage members in transformational ministry, contact Renew and we will send the three booklet series to you.

A heart felt thanks to all who have made Renew’s ministry possible through your prayers and gifts. Your continued support is vital to our work in the mission of Good News to lead United Methodists to a faithful future. Because of delays and angry actions in St. Louis, much work was left undone that must be addressed at the 2020 General Conference. Work has already begun. Delegates are being chosen this spring and summer in our Annual Conferences. Pray for these elections and pray for General Conference 2020. Each of you reading this newsletter can help others to understand the division that separates us and have a part in preparing this church for what is coming.

Raising funds to attend two General Conferences within a year of one another is a challenge. Team Renew appreciates each donation however large or small. If you have not made a contribution lately, please consider making one today. But most importantly, join Team Renew as we contend for the United Methodist Church by faithfully praying for our denomination.

Stand with us by going on the Renew Website and printing the Donations Form. Or you may designate a check to Renew Network and send to:

Good News

P.O. Box 132076

The Woodlands, TX 77393-2076

Fax: 832.813.5327

In His Service,

Katy Kiser

Renew Network Team Leader

832-381- 0331
renew@goodnewsmag.org

What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part I) by Tom Lambrecht

A previous “Perspective” blog called attention to a survey conducted by United Methodist Communications that indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.
This finding runs counter to the narrative that the “vast majority” of American United Methodists are moving in a more progressive direction, particularly on issues like marriage and sexual ethics. While the survey did not include questions specifically related to the denomination’s current controversy, the results pointed to a substantially conservative theological foundation for United Methodism in the U.S. Even when there is a clear difference between conservatives and liberals, a majority of liberals often affirm a traditional theological perspective. (Of course, one wonders if people might be using the same words, yet defining them differently based on different doctrinal perspectives.)
The online survey was aimed at laity who were members or regular attendees of United Methodist churches in the United States, but who do not serve as local church leaders. As such, the survey attempted to reach the ultimate “grass roots” of the church in order to gauge their beliefs on a number of theological points. Previous surveys have found that the farther up the “ladder” from the grass roots membership into the leadership of the church one ascends, the more theologically liberal are the beliefs people hold.
Who Is Jesus?
The most important aspect of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christian doctrine answers the questions Who is Jesus and What did Jesus do? Over 92 percent of United Methodists of all theological stripes believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.”
When asked if Jesus was “the son of God?” 98 percent of conservatives believed so, compared to 82 percent of liberals (moderates were at 92 percent). At the same time, nine percent of both conservatives and moderates said “Jesus was only human and not the son of God.” (The numbers do not add up properly here, so the results may not have been accurately reported. Alternatively, some may have answered both “yes” and “no” to the son of God question.) Notably, 16 percent of progressives asserted that Jesus was only human. This is a small percentage and reflects a relatively high view of Jesus Christ even among United Methodist progressives.
More than 35 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was only a religious or spiritual leader.” While 21 percent of conservatives and 23 percent of moderates agreed, 25 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was a great man and teacher but not divine,” compared with 20 percent of moderates and 15 percent of traditionalists. These answers do not fit well with the answers to the previous question “Was Jesus the son of God.” One can only assume that many members have only a fuzzy idea of what it means to call Jesus “the son of God.”
Strikingly, 48 percent of progressives thought “Jesus committed sins like other people.” One-third of conservatives and 38 percent of moderates agreed.
Fully 82 percent of conservatives believe “Jesus will return to earth someday.” Only 66 percent of liberals agreed, as well as 76 percent of moderates.
Finally, 94 percent of conservatives believe Jesus was conceived by a virgin. Only 68 percent of liberals agree, along with 82 percent of moderates.
The inconsistent answers to these questions about Jesus indicate we may not have done a very good job as a church of teaching our doctrines. Our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith teach that Jesus was indeed the son of God, that he is divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and that he will return again to earth. And the Bible clearly states that Jesus did not sin (II Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, I Peter 2:22).
What did Jesus do?
Nearly all (98 percent) conservatives believe that “Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God,” while 96 percent of moderates agreed. By contrast, 84 percent of progressives affirmed that statement. The overwhelming majority of conservatives (95 percent) affirmed that “Jesus died so we could have eternal life” – 90 percent of moderates agreed, while 82 percent of liberals agreed. Disappointingly, 18 percent of liberals affirmed, “Jesus’ death has no impact on my eternal life.”
Not surprisingly, 86 percent of traditionalists believe “the only way to salvation is through a relationship with Jesus.” Only 64 percent of moderates and 54 percent of liberals agreed. More than 35 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals believe “there are ways to salvation that do not involve Jesus.”
In accordance with an orthodox perspective, 98 percent of conservatives “believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Meanwhile, 90 percent of moderates and 81 percent of progressives believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Here again, the official teachings of our church affirm that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God, so that we could have eternal life. Our teachings hold that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. The divergence indicated by the survey answers pinpoints a need for clearer teaching of the main essentials of our faith.
The fact that so many moderates and progressives believe in multiple ways of salvation is a key factor in the decline of evangelism in the church. Why focus so much on Jesus if he is not essential to our salvation?
Conclusion
There is nothing more at the heart of our Christian faith than our understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. It is encouraging that super-majorities of United Methodists hold to orthodox, traditional theological understandings.
Still, significant minorities of our members believe that Jesus is not God, calling into question the Trinitarian heart of our faith. This includes a significant number of progressives denying the virgin birth of Christ (one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed). Large numbers think that Jesus committed sins, just like the rest of humanity. And significant percentages do not believe Jesus will return to earth someday (another article of the Apostles’ Creed).
Next week, we will look at other beliefs of grass-roots United Methodists.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.