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. 

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.

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. 

2019 General Conference Stands Firm on Biblical Teaching

2019 General Conference Stands Firm on Biblical Teaching
March 2019

Dear Renew Network,

During the days just prior to the 2019 General Conference, one African woman pastor declared, “We are here to give the church back to Jesus.” And so they did. For without their strong support of orthodox, evangelical Christians, the One Church Plan would have prevailed. Instead, the church passed the Orthodox Traditional Plan.

Many were disappointed with bishops who did not move the process along, which in turn left no time to adopt petitions which would have addressed some of the unconstitutional issues cited in an earlier Judicial Council ruling. And yet much was accomplished. Important loopholes were closed and standards strengthened, including those for ordained ministry.

An explicit prohibition was passed that will limit candidates for ordained ministry to those individuals who will uphold our standards as stated in the Book of Discipline. Additionally, Bishops will not be able to dismiss complaints arbitrarily. A gracious exit plan was passed. But time ran out before it was perfected. Still the will of the body was made known.

There were important amendments that were not allowed to come before the body due to stalling. There is much work that will need to be done between now and the 2020 General Conference. But that does not diminish what can be celebrated. The One Church Plan did not have the votes to pass. It was not affirmed by the majority of delegates. This is remarkable given the time and energy the Council of Bishops and Uniting Methodists put into passing it. Their claim that it had overwhelming support was proved wrong.

We can rejoice that the Book Of Discipline will be strengthened; the definition of marriage will not change; our churches still officially cannot hold same sex weddings, and the ordination standards have been made stronger. For a more detailed account of what was passed and not passed click here and here.

What has divided the church is bigger than the issue of inclusion of LGTBQIA persons. The issue that has divided United Methodists is deeply theological and spiritual. Leading up to and during the conference, there had been much talk of ‘unity’ and ‘love’ by the centrists and progressives. They thought they had the moral high ground. But did they? It turned out that their understanding of both love and unity was built on sand and not a rock solid understanding of God or Scripture.

Dr. Luther Oconer, a Filipino who teaches at United Theological Seminary spoke at a dinner the night before the conference began. He reminded us that there is no real unity without obedience. Oconor also drew the connection between obedience and holiness. He made a powerful point when he remarked, “Promoters of the OCP argue for a diversity of practices…on human sexuality.” He went on to say that they want diversity in unity, but fail to realize that what we practice is tied to deeply held beliefs that define who we are as Methodists: beliefs that “run to the core of our understanding of sin, grace, justification, and sanctification.” The progressive position makes no sense because, “…by allowing different approaches to marriage and ordination based on context, we will have already undermined the very essence of what makes us Methodists…It is tantamount to surrendering our spiritual identity to the dictates of the world.” For Oconor’s entire address, click here.

Our Centrist and Progressive brothers and sisters seemed to have forgotten or failed to comprehend that obedience is necessary to unity and holiness. Unity cannot be achieved if we discard the beliefs that define who we are. They asked all United Methodists to accept the demands of the LGTBQIA community and get back to the Great Commission and the business of making disciples – a goal they thought all Methodists could share. But as Dr. Richard Ramos has shown, mission cannot be successful without obedience, because here too, authentic mission must abide by the words of Jesus who tells us not only to go into all the nations, not only to baptize but to teach them to observe ALL things He has taught. Again, obedience is key to mission.

Most importantly, obedience is also essential to the understanding of real love. Jesus tells us in John 14:15 “If you love me, keep my commandments.” John’s letters tell the early church that love is obedience to ALL that God has commanded. Love distinguishes Christians from the world. Throughout John’s writings, he expounds on love. John makes it very clear in his second letter the sixth verse, “This is love, that we walk according to His commandments.”

It is a shallow love that is defined by merely granting what a person wants. It is a dangerous love that misrepresents and blesses what the Word of God does not affirm. For love separated from obedience to all “that is written” is not love. It is self-centeredness in the name of a shallow love that is neither of the spirit nor of the truth. As Cara Nicklas, a delegate from Oklahoma wrote, “Proponents of the OCP argued simply that their plan promoted ‘love for one another’ implying the Traditional Plan did not. Their ‘Love’ is viewed as acceptance of any and all sexual behavior. If it feels good, do it.”

Unity, holiness, mission and love are unobtainable without obedience. Rev. Kenneth Levingston reminded delegates that Methodism is known for its faithfulness to scripture and its emphasis on the way of holiness. Levingston also admonished us not to go back to the bondage that does not honor God. He was referring to those who have taught the church to go after the flesh and not the Spirit.

The Traditional Plan was passed. Traditionalists believe LGTBQIA persons are loved by God. They are welcome in our churches. They are loved with a love that has not been severed from obedience to all that Jesus has taught.

Immediately after the close of the conference, a friend and I found ourselves in a conversation with a female bishop. She accused us and other traditionalist of wanting to throw her out of our denomination. My friend gently reminded her that she knew what the UMC stood for when she vowed to uphold and guard those beliefs. We must remember that the bishop and other like her appeared to be in shock because the OCP did not pass.

Since then, many progressive bishops and denominational leaders have made any number of accusations to the motives of traditionalists. Some have vowed in print to continue to disregard our Book of Discipline and work for full inclusion of all LGBTQIA persons.

It should be remembered that traditionalists have been faithful to the Word of God and the Book of Discipline. Progressives have put us in schism. Dr. David Watson, professor at United Theological Seminary, puts it very strongly, “For years now I have believed we are not functioning as a single denomination. Once bishops started openly to violate the decisions of the General Conference, it was essentially all over. The 2019 General Conference simply held up in dramatic fashion what has become increasingly clear to many: the divisions are so great that we cannot hold them within a single denominational container.”

If the OCP had prevailed, our church would indeed be in bondage to the demands of our culture. The church would have rejected real unity, true holiness, authentic mission and perfect love. But instead, the conference upheld what in Jesus’ words, has been true “from the beginning.” Rev. Levingston passionately reminded the delegates at a Good News breakfast that, “It is still written,” a reference to Jesus’ words in Matthew 24, “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.” Peter on whom the church is built put it this way, “The Word of the Lord endures forever.”

Of all the accomplishments and disappointments of this conference, the overarching fact remains – The Word of God and the Doctrine of Holiness were not abandoned by the majority of United Methodists.

I want to thank the network for your prayers and your gifts which made it possible for Renew to be represented at the 2019 General Conference. Work is already in progress for the 2020 General Conference.

In His Service,
Katy Kiser
Renew Network Team Leader

Faith in Africa by Dr. Jerry Kulah

The Faith Found in Africa
March 21, 2019 By Good News

The following remarks are from an address given at the Reform and Renewal Coalition Briefing Breakfast at the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Jerry P. Kulah –

My dear brothers and sisters of The United Methodist Church from all around the world, I humbly greet you in the strong name of Jesus Christ!

We thank God for all who have participated in observing a sacred season of fasting and prayer as we have prepared for this special General Conference session. And we praise God that there are thousands upon thousands still on bended knees interceding on our behalf as we make a defining decision regarding the future of The United Methodist Church.

I thank God for his precious Word to us, and I thank him for you, my dear sisters and brothers in Christ.

As the General Coordinator of UMC Africa Initiative I greet you on behalf of all its members and leaders. We want to thank the Renewal and Reform Coalition within the United Methodist Church for the invitation to address you at this important breakfast meeting. Kindly join me in reading God’s Word as recorded in the Gospel of John 8:31-32: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

As I understand it, the purpose for which we have gathered this week, and the plans before us as delegates seek to find a lasting solution to the long debate over our church’s sexual ethics, its teachings on marriage, and it ordination standards.

This debate and the numerous acts of defiance have brought the United Methodist Church to a crossroads, as it were in the days of the nation of Judah when they forsook the Lord. God challenged his people through the prophet Jeremiah to choose the ancient path and walk in it so that they might find rest for their souls (Jeremiah 6:16). Similarly, God is speaking to the People Called United Methodist to do likewise.

While there may be several plans before us, I would like to speak to just two of them. One plan invites the people called United Methodists to take a road in opposition to the Bible and two thousand years of Christian teachings. I submit to you that, going down that road would divide the church. Those advocating for the One Church Plan would have us take that road.

But I would like to call your attention to consider this other plan, the Modified Traditional Plan. This plan invites us to reaffirm Christian teachings rooted in Scripture and the church’s rich traditions.

It says, “All persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God,” that “All persons need the ministry of the Church,” and that “We affirm that God’s grace is available to all.”

It grounds our sexual ethics in Scripture when it says, the UM Church does “not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers [it] incompatible with Christian teaching.”

While “we commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons,” we do not celebrate same-sex marriages or ordain for ministry people who self-avow as practicing homosexuals. These practices do not conform to the authentic teaching of the Holy Scriptures, our primary authority for faith and Christian living.

However, we extend grace to all people because we all know we are sinners in need of God’s redeeming. We know how critical and life changing God’s grace has been in our own lives.

We warmly welcome all people to our churches; we long to be in fellowship with them, to pray with them, to weep with them, and to experience the joy of transformation with them.

Friends, please hear me, we Africans are not afraid of our sisters and brothers who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, or queer. We love them and we hope the best for them. But we know of no compelling arguments for forsaking our church’s understanding of Scripture and the teachings of the church universal.

And then please hear me when I say as graciously as I can: we Africans are not children in need of western enlightenment when it comes to the church’s sexual ethics. We do not need to hear a progressive U.S. bishop lecture us about our need to “grow up.” No!

Let me assure you, we Africans, whether we have liked it or not, have had to engage in this debate for many years now. We stand with the global church, not a culturally liberal, church elite, in the U.S.

We stand with our Filipino friends! We stand with our sisters and brothers in Europe and Russia! And yes, we stand with our allies in America.

We stand with farmers in Zambia, tech workers in Nairobi, Sunday school teachers in Nigeria, biblical scholars in Liberia, pastors in the Congo, United Methodist Women in Cote d’Ivoire, and thousands of other United Methodists all across Africa who have heard no compelling reasons for changing our sexual ethics, our teachings on marriage, and our ordination standards! We stand together!

We are grounded in God’s word and the gracious and clear teachings of our church. On that we will not yield! We will not take a road that leads us away from the truth! We will take the road that leads to the making of disciples of Jesus Christ for transformation of the world!

I hope and pray, for your sake, that you will walk down this road with us. We would warmly welcome you as our traveling companions, but if you choose another road, we Africans cannot go with you. I am sorry, we cannot!

The vast majority of we Africans support the Modified Traditional Plan for two very important reasons.

First, we believe it is clearly rooted in Scripture and the teachings of Christians in all times and in all places. It reaffirms our church’s belief that “marriage is defined as a sacred relationship between one man and one woman,” not between any two consenting adults.

Second, passage of the Modified Traditional Plan will keep far more United Methodists united as one church than any of the other plans.

I want to be united with my sisters and brothers in our global connection. I hope you want that as well. Let us all walk together in a church steeped in Scripture and the life transforming teachings of our church; because all scripture is God’s breath, and is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness….” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Finally, I trust you will support a gracious exit petition, because, as someone has said, “It is better to be separated on truth than to be united on error.” Some Africans have been told that if a gracious exit petition is passed our evangelical friends in the U.S. will go their own way and no longer support efforts in Africa. That is not true; because Hudson Taylor once opined, “God’s work done God’s way never lacks God’s supply.”

Many of us in Africa have developed deep and long-lasting friendships with our brothers and sisters in the U.S. Those relationships will not be severed if a gracious exit petition passes.

Unfortunately, some United Methodists in the U.S. have the very faulty assumption that all Africans are concerned about is U.S. financial support. Well, I am sure, being sinners like all of you, some Africans are fixated on money.

But with all due respect, a fixation on money seems more of an American problem than an African one. We get by on far less than most Americans do; we know how to do it. I’m not so sure you do. So, if anyone is so naïve or condescending as to think we would sell our birth right in Jesus Christ for American dollars, then they simply do not know us. Because, we know how to live on much, how to live on little, and how to live on nothing. Amen!

We are seriously joyful in following Jesus Christ and God’s holy word to us in the Bible. And in truth, we think many people in the U.S. and in parts of Europe could learn a great deal from us. The UM churches, pastors, and lay people who partner with us acknowledge as much.

Please understand me when I say that the vast majority of African United Methodists will never, ever trade Jesus and the truth of the Bible for money. We will walk alone if necessary, and yet we are confident the ties of Christian fellowship we have with friends here in the U.S. will not be severed even if they too must walk apart from a church that would adopt the One Church Plan.

We believe all local churches should be treated fairly and so we strongly support a gracious exit plan. Friends, not too long ago my country, Liberia was ravaged by a terrible civil war that claimed over 250,000 lives. And then we faced the outbreak of the Ebola virus that claimed thousands of lives. We are keenly familiar with hardship and sorrow, but Jesus has led us through every trial. So nothing that happens over the next few days will deter us from following Him, and Him alone.

We shall persevere in the race before us, “looking unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 2:2-3). We shall remain steadfast and faithful. And some day we shall wear the victor’s crown of glory with our King Jesus! Come walk with us!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the blessed Holy Spirit, Amen!

Jerry P. Kulah is the Dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology, United Methodist University, in Liberia.

Shifting Axis of Methodism

Shifting Axis of Methodism
March 21, 2019 By Good News 9 Comments

Children crowd a window to see inside Nazareth United Methodist Church in Kindu, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
By Steve Beard –

“I look upon all the world as my parish,” famously said John Wesley (1703-1791). One imagines he had no idea that the United Methodist Church – one very large aspect of his spiritual legacy – would be in ministry in 60 different nations around the globe.

Within the last 20 years, a notable shift has occurred from the UM Church being a declining North American-centric denomination (6.9 million members) to one that reflects a growing 40 percent of our membership (5.2 million) found on the continent of Africa. An additional 200,000 members are found in the Philippines, Europe, and Eurasia.

The trajectories of Methodism’s growth and decline in various time zones around the globe will continue to have massive implications for the future of the denomination. Those who have ignored the demographic shifts thus far are at a great disadvantage when it comes to interpreting the direction of contemporary Methodism.

The 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church was simultaneously translated for delegates in French, German, Korean, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Swahili. The skilled bank of interpreters illustrate the unique international DNA of the denomination.

The Christian population in Africa in 1900 was 10 million. Currently, it is 631 million. For the first time in history, the African continent is home to the greatest number of Christians on the planet. There are more Christian hymns being sung on Sunday mornings in Swahili, French, and other languages spoken in Africa than in English.

In St. Louis, that new reality explains why a notable 30 percent of the 864 delegates are Africans – with 48 delegates alone coming from the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And yet, that reality was never fully expressed because of visa issues for international delegates.

“Officially, General Conference was to have 864 delegates,” reported Heather Hahn of United Methodist News Service. “But of the voting delegates, 31 were absent, primarily because they were unable to gain visas.” That was announced in St. Louis by the Rev. Gary Graves, secretary of General Conference.

“Almost all annual conferences had at least some representation,” reported Hahn. “However, neither the two delegates nor the reserves in the East Angola Conference could obtain visas, the General Conference business office said Feb. 27.”

One assumes that all 31 of the missing international delegates will have their visa issues ironed out in time for the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis.

The percentage of international delegates will continue to grow as United Methodism grapples with issues of just representation. When the denomination meets next year, 55.9 percent of the delegates will be from the United States, 32 percent from Africa, 6 percent from Philippines, and 4.5 percent from Europe.

Quite simply, the energy, vitality, and growth within international Methodism is flourishing in different time zones, nations, and languages beyond the dominant American name brand Methodism of yesterday. According to the most recent statistics available from the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), the shift will define the dynamic of Methodism.

• More United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.9 million) than in the Western, North Central, and Northeastern Jurisdictions combined (2.6 million).

• More United Methodists worship in Nigeria (520,212) than in all 12 states found in the entire Western Jurisdiction combined (295,308).

• Twice as many United Methodists worship in the western African nation of Cote d’Ivoire (677,355) as in Virginia (319,822).

• More United Methodists worship in Mozambique (136,707) than in Northern Illinois, which includes metropolitan Chicago (81,999).

The axis of Methodism is shifting. The unmistakable tilt of the sociological and spiritual reality found in the newly emerging United Methodist Church is found in African cities such as Harare, Lubumbashi, Abuja, and Freetown. These urban epicenters may be the next Londons, Bristols, and Epworths in a tectonic shift of Wesleyan leadership.

The United Methodist Church gained more than 143,000 members over the past few years. All of the growth, however, took place in two of the African regions: Congo and West Africa. Every other region of the world declined in membership. Congo gained more than 429,000 members. It is now the largest region in the church, exceeding even the Southeastern Jurisdiction. West Africa followed by gaining nearly 200,000 members, coming to over 1.7 million, making it the third largest region in the world, behind the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

This shift will cause many issues of tension to rise to the surface as different cultures make their voices heard. The comparative analysis between United Methodism in the Congo Central Conference and that of the Western, North Central, and Northeastern jurisdictions combined is worth revisiting. These three U.S. jurisdictions currently have a total of 23 bishops, compared to only four Congolese bishops.

That kind of unjust and lopsided representation within a power structure such as the Council of Bishops is in desperate need of rectifying. The 23 bishops from the three U.S. jurisdictions represent one bishop for every 113,735 members. For the Congolese, there is one bishop for every 749,811 members.

John Wesley’s declaration that the “world is my parish” has been a point of spiritual inspiration for generations in the Methodist movement. Today, it serves as a notable challenge for a denomination in dozens of nations. But it also serves as a compass for the course that United Methodism will take in the future.

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.

Why is UMW Declining?

Bishops preside over a service of Holy Communion during closing worship at the United Methodist Women Assembly 2018 in Columbus, Ohio. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

By Katy Kiser –

In 1973, Response magazine, the official publication for the United Methodist Women (UMW), claimed the organization had 1.5 million members. Since that time, membership in UMW has declined at an alarming rate.

In 2012, the Women’s Division was granted independence from the General Board of Global Mission – and became the United Methodist Women National Office. The staff hoped their independence would bring new vitality and influence, but the organization has failed to curb its staggering membership loss.

Currently, less than half of the nearly 32,000 United Methodist congregations in the United States have a UMW unit. (It should be noted that UMW identity carries a different sense of spirituality and fellowship outside the U.S.). Institutionally, UMW is losing members at five times the rate that the general church is losing female members. According to official GCFA numbers at the end of 2016, membership in UMW was only 438,543. The decline from 1.5 million to less than 450,000 is drastic. The signs are not looking promising. Within the last 10 years, UWM lost more than 200,000 members — nearly one-third of its membership.

What has contributed to this precipitous membership loss? Like the general church, it can be partially attributed to the death of its aging membership, which is not being replaced. But this is not the primary reason.

As Team Leader of Renew Network, the women’s arm of Good News, I get a steady stream of calls from women who voice concerns for the partisan politics, missiology, and theology coming out of the UMW National Office. It is in their voices that I find compelling reasons why eight out of every nine women in the United Methodist Church do not belong to or support the UMW.

It’s all Partisan Politics

“Can you help our United Methodist Women?” asked the woman on the phone when she called our office. “We don’t want politics. We want Bible study!”

By far the question most asked of Renew is, “What can you tell me about the politics of the UMW? The women of my church want to know.” These requests represent a concern that the leadership is predominately involved in community organizing, activism, and lobbying for specific left-leaning political outcomes.

The perception that UMW is political is supported by the United Methodist Women’s lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, which is run out of the UMW National Policy Office in D.C. as well as at the United Nations where they have consultative status. Women are invited to participate in political action through a number of venues.

On its website, it maintains a list of Action Alerts (currently 40+). These alerts give everything women need to call or write Washington and add their voices to support or defeat the positions that the National Office recommends. Rarely do these Alerts reflect the concerns or positions of moderate or conservative women. It disturbs these women when they hear the UMW staff claim to represent all women in the United Methodist Church.

The UMW National Office also sponsors Annual Social Action or Legislative Events in various states where women can gather to influence state policies as they relate to the justice priorities of UMW. This year, at the UMW 30th Annual Legislative Event in Austin Texas, the women partnered with Texas Impact, a progressive advocacy group. The UMW rarely if ever advocates for politically moderate or conservative public policy solutions.

The UMW National Office utilizes “Mission U” held in every conference each summer and a quadrennial national gathering know as “Assembly” to organize the women for action. At the May Assembly, women were organized to embrace their power to change our economy, our climate, women’s health, and the incarceration rate. The event held 54 workshops led by social activists – two of whom were co-chair persons for the 2017 Women’s March held the day after the inauguration – including the exceedingly controversial Linda Sarsour, a provocative Muslim-American activist.

Over the years, UMW’s political activism has been rooted in an unbalanced and strongly progressive perspective. Without fail, it advocates for public policies that call upon big government solutions to social inequality. Rarely do they consider unintended consequences or the possibility that government intervention can hurt instead of help. Social inequality has widened as the traditional family has weakened. But strengthening the traditional family is not a justice priority of UMW.

Becoming informed and participating in the political process is not at issue, nor is the importance of the church’s social witness. But when the work of the UMW clearly promotes policies that favor the legislative proposals of one party over the other, it leaves them open to the charge they are both political and partisan.

Partisan politics is not a recipe for growth. Nor is it a recipe for making disciples for Jesus Christ.

What is Mission?

The emphasis on activism and community organizing begs the question, “What is Mission to the United Methodist Women?” In a 2017 summer newsletter, Harriet Olson asked a similar question. She quoted an orthodox theologian saying, “Mission is following the Holy Trinity into the World.” She went on to say, “We hear and respond to the cries of the needy… and we root ourselves in the core of the message: to ‘love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength’ through faith in Christ and to ‘love our neighbors as ourselves.” Wonderful words indeed.

But it is not in these words that women question the motives or the mission of UMW; it is in the actions they take that women have asked, “Has the mission of UMW become a mere political vision for social justice as defined by progressive politics and in so doing neglected, if not lost, the gospel altogether?”

Is it possible to bring about the Kingdom of God by changing our social systems? The UMW National Office appears to believe it is. Why else would they put so much emphasis on one-sided partisan responses to all the controversial issues facing the United States? Politics, politics, politics.

At the 2012 and 2016 General Conferences, an individual submitted legislation to amend the Responsibilities of United Methodist Women in paragraph 1320 of the Book of Discipline to include the statement, “Encourage United Methodist Women in efforts to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to their local communities.” This petition would have required the incorporation of evangelism, central to the mission of the church. The UMW did not support the petition; it failed.

The UMW were not successful in their effort to stop a petition and a resolution to recognize and encourage women’s and men’s ministry independent of UMW and UMM. But they did insert the phrase “justice advocacy” into the resolution, signaling its continued commitment to their particular vision of progressive social justice.

Many women who believe Christ alone is unique and holds the keys to salvation and transformation of the soul realize the gospel has been sidelined. In its place, transformation of our “systems” and achieving human so-called justice based on material equality has become a substitute for the cosmic changing work of Christ on the cross.

This point should be remembered when we hear some bishops claim that all Methodists can agree to lay aside theological differences and organize around shared mission. The issues that divide us politically, also divide us theologically and lead us to different understandings of mission. The “social holiness” of John Wesley was a concept based on discipleship – not the partisan brand of “social justice” promoted by the UMW.

Radical Feminism and Other Theological Concerns

Theological concerns have also played a major role in the decline of United Methodist Women. In 2016, UMW Spiritual Life Study, The Bible and Human Sexuality came out; it was a focus at Mission U (what used to be known as the UMW School of Christian Mission). A female clergy friend and I decided to attend; we had read the book and had serious concerns. The author had reinterpreted scripture to justify a new understanding of biblical morality. We were hoping that Mission U, which reaches thousands of women each summer in each annual conference, would be more balanced than we had found the book.

Our hopes were not realized. An entire Saturday was spent deconstructing biblical teaching on sexuality and revising it to promote a new sexual ethic. This book turned the Bible’s teaching on sex before marriage, adultery, and marriage upside down. It undercut the Bible’s dichotomy between sin and righteousness by calling into question time-honored understanding of Scripture. Much of the revisionist questioning came out of the author’s claim that the Old and New Testaments were written in a time of male dominated society (patriarchy) and thus many of the injunctions of scripture are not applicable.

The participants were asked to accept not only the practice of homosexuality, but also a sexual ethic that would eliminate any scriptural boundaries on sexual practice other than “consent and safety.” We were asked to categorize our sexual experiences as positive or negative. We were told that the church needed to discard the marriage culture, because it condones harmful behaviors as long as they are within marriage and says nothing to singles, widows, and homosexuals.

To reinforce these points, we were shown a short film where Barbara Lee, a Christian feminist said, “To relate to each other as whole human beings, we need to develop and live by a Sexual Ethic that celebrates sex while treating it with moral integrity. An ethic that begins by recognizing that people of all sexual orientation and gender identities, of all marital status, and of all physical capacities, have the right to experience sex as a healthy and life-giving part of their existence.”

Sex was being taught not as a covenant between a man and a woman ordained by God, but as a “right” because it was God’s good gift, healthy and pleasurable.

In the early 1990s, the then Women’s Division was a major participant in the Re-Imagining Conference, which was initiated by the World Council of Churches and billed as a theological conference for feminist, womanist, and lesbian ideology. The conference created quite a stir in United Methodism.

The radical feminism and goddess worship that permeated the conference has not gone away in the decades since. In fact, the Sophia worship of the Re-Imagining Conference resurfaced in the 2017 UMW spiritual growth study titled, If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be. The authors reinterpreted scripture beginning with the creation story where they reframe “Eve as a wise woman, the serpent as an agent of transformation, and the garden as a symbol of innocence that must be left behind to experience the complex fullness of life.”

The authors see the Bible as a “call of liberation.” They portray the Holy Spirit not as the Spirit Jesus describes in John 14, but as one that brings new revelation as society evolves. They see biblical teaching on sexual morality and purity as fear-based ideas that young women should reject. The authors believe the lack of feminine language for God promotes sexism. They encourage women to name God for themselves, because seeing God as “He” keeps the oppressive patriarchal systems in place.

Is it any wonder that some women have left their UMW units over serious theological concerns?

Good News for Women’s Ministry

At the same time that UMW has been declining, Christ-centered, biblically based, spirit empowered women’s ministry and mission has been thriving. This fact was recognized at the 2016 General Conference when paragraph 256 in the Book of Discipline was amended to officially allow and encourage women’s ministry alternatives to UMW. This addition to the Discipline has given women in the local church the freedom to expand their ministries in hopes of not only growing membership, but also with the goal of growing in Christ and offering him to a hurting and confused world.

Although the staff of the UMW National Office continues to claim that UMW is the only official women’s ministry in the church, this simply is not true. Women’s ministry in the church is not limited to UMW. Many women in the local church have recognized that unless we ourselves are transformed by and have a deep relationship with Christ, we cannot hope to further the mission to make disciples and transform the world. We cannot share what we do not have. The world does not need more of the world and its secular agendas. The world needs the transforming power of our Savior.

It was the power of Jesus Christ that inspired the women in Women’s Society of Christian Service and Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church both of which originated in the late 1800s. The torch that carried the light of Christ into the world by the courageous women of the predecessor organizations has been preserved in the work of any number of Methodist women in the church today.

These fore-mothers are claimed by UMW who trace their origin back to these early groups. But if these inspiring women were with us today, they would have much in common with the women’s groups who operate outside UMW. They too would most likely be concerned by the politicization of mission and revisionist interpretations of Scripture. Thankfully, new evangelical Wesleyan women’s voices have emerged within the United Methodist Church. Women who do not belong to UMW are attending various Bible studies, ministry programs, prayer groups where spiritual formation is faithful to Scripture. They participate in both local and global mission opportunities which take seriously the Great Commission that Jesus gave his disciples and subsequent generations.

With the new legislation passed at General Conference 2016, the future for women is bright despite the decline of United Methodist Women.