The Real United Methodist Church

There is a substantial difference between the real United Methodist Church and the image of the UMC asserted by traditionalists anxious to justify their decision to leave it. The real UMC is tens of thousands of congregations and pastors faithfully witnessing to Jesus Christ in the difficult context of contemporary society.

In reply to my recent blog post (https://xroadschristianityandculture.blogspot.com/2022/12/why-remain-in-umc.html) Kevin B responded on Facebook, "The article is good in mentioning the positive contributions the Methodist connection has made even before the UMC was formed, but it fails to address the significant and ongoing rejection of Methodist doctrine and practice that has caused this split."

The charge that the UMC has "significant and ongoing rejection of Methodist doctrine and practice" is now a commonplace among the group identifying as "traditionalist" and their associated organizations like the Good News Movement, the Wesley Covenant Association, and the Institute of Religion and Democracy.
 
But is it true?

Let's begin with some facts. The UMC in the United States has over 30,000 congregations, and more than 38,000 clergy. If we assume a sermon a week in each congregation this would give us over 1,500,000 sermons a year. And obviously there are Bible studies, weeknight services, etc. So what would represent significant and ongoing rejection of UM doctrine?
  
The terms are imprecise, but surely out of 1.5 million sermons by 38 thousand clergy one would expect at least tens of thousands of instances of rejection of UM doctrine per year involving at least thousands of clergy in order to be significant

In reality the documented instances of heresy among UM pastors, that is preaching or teaching false doctrine, amount to at most a few dozen over the last 40 years. And there has not been a single instance of proposing a change in UM doctrinal standards in UM history. So in fact there is no significant and ongoing rejection of UM doctrine by clergy.

What about in UM seminaries? Their faculty all have extensive publication histories, so we don't have to guess whether they are teaching rejection of UM doctrine. Yet despite a great deal of innuendo, documented cases of UM faculty teaching false doctrine in UM courses either don't exist or are so rare as to be almost non-existent. (This author reviewed all the public accusations put forward by the IRD in its Juicy Ecumenism blog, none actually amounted to a documented case of teaching heresy in a UM course on theology, doctrine, or polity.) 

Most importantly: UM seminaries are responsible to the UM Faculty Senate in terms of teaching UM doctrine and polity, so their teaching is actually reviewed. Their ongoing accreditation as UM schools depends on teaching UM doctrine and polity as found in the Discipline. And yet to my knowledge none have had their teaching of UM doctrine and polity questioned or their accreditation threatened.
 
This hasn't stopped the accusations that UM seminaries teach "liberal theology." But this accusation fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of theological education. Since the late 19th century it has been recognized that the challenges faced by Christians cannot be met by pastors who simply parrot old doctrinal formulations and teach pious platitudes. As a result UM schools, and indeed almost all theological schools, teach students to critically examine the key intellectual and moral issues of the times, understand the different theological points of view to which their congregations are exposed, and to learn to articulate clearly the meaning of scripture to their congregations.
 
The fact that UM seminaries have libraries with books articulating a wide variety of theological points of view (evangelical, progressive, Catholic, Orthodox, pentecostal, and so on) doesn't mean they reject UM doctrine. The fact that their professors teach about these different perspectives doesn't mean they reject UM doctrine. The fact that they welcome a diverse student body from different traditions doesn't mean that they reject UM doctrine. It just means that they prepare men and women for ministry in a complex world.

The accusation of significant and ongoing rejection of UM doctrine in UM seminaries simply does not stand.
 
What about significant and widespread rejection of UM practice? We’ll let’s be honest, in some quarters there is an ongoing  rejection of UM practice with regard to same sex marriage and the ordination of homosexuals.  Is it widespread? This is harder to judge. Relative to the number of clergy (38,000) the number involved in active, public protest seems pretty small. In my conference I can count them on two hands. If one looks to social media the numbers don't change. A search on Facebook, or Twitter, yields tweets and posts in the hundreds, not thousands.
 
What about the actual rejection of UM practice through disobedience. Is it widespread and ongoing? Given the number of ordinations per year, the number of documented ordinations of homosexuals is vanishingly small. Outside the Western Jurisdiction (only 3 percent of the UM ) I have found less than five instances in the last decade. But even if it were 100 ordinations in 10 years it would be a tiny percentage of clergy, or ordinations.
 
What about performing a same sex marriage? I know of several instances over the last decade. But this is in relation to the tens of thousands of marriages a year performed by UM clergy. And in every case (outside the Western Jurisdiction) the clergy involved in a same sex marriage were disciplined and either pledged to conform in the future, surrendered their credentials, or are engaged in ongoing processes of reconciliation. (Because these processes are confidential it is obviously difficult to get exact numbers.)

The reality is that despite all the noise, actual rejection of UM standards in either action or words is not widespread, again except in the Western Jurisdiction. And again the Western Jurisdiction is only 3 percent of all American United Methodists. It is not significant.

So why then is there an impression among some in the UMC of widespread and ongoing rejection of UMC doctrine and practice?
  
The main reason is that there is rather obviously widespread disagreement with UMC standards regarding same-sex marriage and ordination of homosexuals. Votes to change the standards have been close, and it isn't difficult to find widespread disagreement on these standards in social media.

This is hardly surprising. Recent polls show that between 71 and 73 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. The percentages appear substantially higher among the members of Gen Z (currently high school and college aged). This has at least two consequences. 1. It is likely that every UMC church has a substantial minority, or possibly an outright majority of members who can at least tolerate same-sex marriage. 2. A church that insists on rejecting same-sex marriage and LGBTQ ordination will have to find its members from among less than 30 % of the US population, or convince every potential member to fundamentally change their views on marriage in order to join the church. If that church wants to reach Gen Z, the percentage of potential members declines even more, and the task of conversation becomes that much harder.

And this, I think, is the real reason for feeling (there are no facts involved) that the UMC is home to widespread rejection of traditional doctrine and practice.
 
What we are seeing today is not a United Methodist movement to reject traditional Methodist belief and practice. What we are experiencing is cultural shift that is naturally manifest in churches that are fully part of the culture. Under the circumstances it is amazing how faithful the great majority of clergy and congregations are to traditional belief and practice.
 
What causes us to be unsettled is that many of us don't go to church to be confronted with rapidly changing understandings of human sexuality, complex and divisive social issues, and challenges to our very conception of reality coming from the sciences. We don't want seismic shifts in culture to invade our Sunday mornings. We come to church to experience the comfort of God's love and mobilize to share help our neighbors in need. We want the church to be a bulwark against cultural change, not a cultural battleground. 
 
Yet even in our churches, however conservative and/or isolated, these cultural changes and distractions simply will not leave us alone. Maybe it is the pastor who brings these realities to our attention. Maybe a member of our Sunday School or UMW. Maybe it is someone in the choir. Or maybe the questions from our youth and young adults. Maybe we carry them in our own hearts and minds. 

We can't leave our culture at the door even when we don't like it. It sits in the pews next to us and it is up near the altar in the shape of an American flag and permeates everything from our music to our stained glass windows to the menu for the Wednesday evening church social. We will never escape the conflicts and changes in our culture. 

So we need to be honest. The intrusiveness of contemporary culture and society doesn't come from "widespread and ongoing rejection of doctrine and practice." It comes from the fact that we live as contemporary people in the contemporary world and we open our church doors to our contemporary neighbors. Unless we turn our churches into monasteries there is no refuge from that world. 

All we can do is abide in Christ and his love. And that, for those who do not want to confront a changing society, is a dangerous refuge. For Christ inevitably sends us to Judea (our own neighborhood), Samaria (the next city over) and the ends of the earth. Christ requires that we love, and invite to our table, just those people whose beliefs and ways of life we find most troubling. Exclusion in the pursuit of purity is not an option.

In the real UMC, the ministry of 30 thousand churches and 38 thousand pastors, we do not find the rejection of UM doctrine and practice. What we find is congregations abiding in the love of Christ and faithfully seeking to understand their neighbors and offer them that love. 

Comments

  1. Picking up for UM Insight, with your permission. Thanks!

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  2. "Unless we turn our churches into monasteries there is no refuge from that world." This statement resonates with me. Wall out the world around us; Sunday becomes a sanctuary against reality; get my ticket to heaven: and forget or ignore the teachings of Jesus. Your point about the Western Jurisdiction was spot on. I know two, small deep east Texas churches that were saved from Disaffiliation by realizing that a gay bishop in Colorado did not hurt them in any way. They disagreed completely with that "event" but we able to say: "so what?"

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  3. Exactly. There needs to be room for cultural diversity - and space to work out how to respond to a changing culture in a way appropriate to circumstances and conscience.

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  4. So it's your position that there hasn't been any theological drift in the UMC, and that accusations about seminaries and pulpits are without any real basis. Your reasoning seems to indicate that 1) if conservatives aren't devoting time and energy into documenting specific infractions and 2) if bishops and conference leadership aren't prosecuting heresy, then it just don't exist. Surely you are aware that we had a bishop who publicly denied the divinity of Christ (Sprague), and that we now have a bishop who claims that Jesus sinned (Oliveto), and that we have just elected a new bishop who thinks that christology is pointless (Bingham-Tsai). You're thinking it's realistic that this body would prosecute cases brought against liberal clergy who depart from classical Christian & Methodist doctrine? You're thinking conservatives will continue to bring charges against rogue clergy and professors when bishops don't act, and often turn their ire on the clergy who file charges? I've personally seen vocal conservative clergy targeted several times. It's not exactly a system that engenders reporting. But I'm aware of many charges filed that get resolved behind closed doors, or bishops simply refuse to engage. I went to a liberal seminary, one of our official 13, which was openly hostile to conservative doctrine. Very few of my professors professed anything resembling classical Christian doctrine. The IRD has done a decent job documenting just how much UMC authority has drifted theologically. Look at how much hate they and other conservative advocacy groups draw. It isn't something conservative clergy are excited to go through. Most of them signed on to preach Christ and him crucified. They didn't sign up to be demonized for making gay and trans kids kill themselves. They would rather pay a lot of money to get out of what has become a dysfunctional relationship.

    In case I'm not being clear here, I think you're gaslighting conservatives. I think your method of determining the veracity of claims is terminally flawed. I'm not speaking at all to your intent in framing things the way that you have, but the effect it has is to delegitimate the honest and earnest determinations of millions of people. This will only perpetuate, and perhaps exacerbate, the partisan divide in the UMC. I'd urge you to put more energy into trying to understand where detractors are coming from. It could be that they are wrong. You're not going to prove it by saying there hasn't been any documentation or successful prosecution when the incentives and structure have been hostile to such things for a long time. Moreover, the basic documentation of conservatives has indeed been enough to raise significant concern, even if our theology on paper has remained the same. Until liberals can acknowledge that the collective theology of a group can be other than what is on paper, we're going to be talking past each other.

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    1. Yes to this. In many ways what we have is people saying "we haven't changed the rules one bit." However, rules ignored or unenforced have been effectively changed. Covenants that are ignored may exist, but they cease having their covenantal nature. When those charged with enforcing the church's voted discipline tell people if there are charges brought about this part of our rules, we will put them in abeyance (i.e. - we'll ignore them) We just haven't had the courage to make the actual change because we know that won't go over very well. What follows is my opinion: I believe once the wave of disaffiliations finish we will see far left resolutions and bolder breaches of discipline and total disregard of enforcement of the disciplinary provisions that the church voted on in 2019. Will the official doctrine change? No. Will the practical doctrine change? It already has in many places.

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  5. πŸ‘πŸ»πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸΏπŸ‘πŸΌπŸ‘πŸΎπŸ‘πŸ½πŸ³️‍πŸŒˆπŸ™πŸ»πŸ™πŸΎπŸ™πŸΏπŸ™πŸΌπŸ™πŸ½πŸ™πŸ•Š️πŸ•―️..... from a retired engineer/ EU Shop Steward (worked in Irving Texas USA multi-national company ...Tolpuddle Martyrs ... British Methodists), "non- theologian !", now a member of the English Speaking United Methodist Church of Vienna - Austria πŸ˜€

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  6. I read your article and it brought out some very interesting aspects of how you perceive your fellow members rationalization of thier actions and how your own internal bias aid you in being dismissive of the scriptural basis for the rift we as Methodist are seeing in full on display. Your viewpoint, as presented, has an air of sound logic and seems to be adopting a modern cultural spin to an ancient set of beliefs. I believe in fulfilling the prophetic visions of the messiah, Christ opened the world of God's kingdom to all that would repent of thier wicked ways and receive it. Christ did not abolish the principles and covenants God established in the days of Adam, Noah, Abraham or Moses. Christ fulfilled them. God ordained that homosexuality is a sin, Christ did not abolish that. Can a homosexual be forgiven? Absolutely. Does a belief/profession in Christ give a person a free pass to continue in the practice of sin repented? As repentance is "turning away" ,I think not. In today's 1.5 million sermons, how many were "feel good" messages that stayed in the "shallows" of the Word? The truth is this: following Christ is not easy. It is not without sacrifice of self. We were told we would be despised for His namesake. It appears, at least in a cursory view, the church is open to modern reformation to allow the practice of sin without fear of condemnation. That is false doctrine my friend because if God is, was and always be unchanging, then following Christ and upholding God's biblical absolutes are the way forward. "Beware the doctrines and tradtions of men" for men have an agenda all thier own that does not align with biblical precident. May God bless you with a greater understanding of the larger picture for the sake of your soul and the church that we as members love.

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