Let them go in peace and start over from scratch like Wesley did

Let them go in peace and start over from scratch like Wesley did May 23, 2014

The United Methodist blogosphere has been fired up after a recent announcement that 80 prominent pastors and theologians have called for planning a split in the United Methodist Church on account of our differences over the homosexuality issue. Differing perspectives on this announcement have included David Watson, Joel Watts, Kenneth Pruitt, Steve Manskar, Chad Holtz, Drew McIntyre, Tom Lambrecht, and Jeremy Smith. I think that the United Methodist Church should help facilitate the departure of those who do not feel they can continue in ministry with United Methodism because of their frustration with the bishops’ unwillingness to come down hard on pastors who marry gay people. When John Wesley had problems with the Church of England, he didn’t try to orchestrate its breakup; he built his own evangelical parachurch movement from scratch which was of course a wild success because the Holy Spirit was with him (it’s an imperfect analogy, but Wesley didn’t expect the Church of England to bankroll his holiness movement). So that’s what those who want a breakup should do if their concern is genuinely a matter of conscience and not of control.

One of the unnamed tensions in our conflict over homosexuality lies in our simultaneously episcopal and democratic authority structure. No matter how scrupulously this structure is mapped out in the Book of Discipline, what we’re seeing is evidence that this tension runs into quagmires in practice. It creates expectations that are unfulfilled. If our bishops had the authority to make decisions on our behalf about social issues, then the prohibition of homosexuality would probably go away given the current makeup of the Council of Bishops. I don’t know of a single United Methodist bishop who denounces homosexuality consistently and unequivocally. Like it or not, the most conservative bishops are quite moderate. The source of opposition to homosexuality in United Methodism is not based in top-down magisterial teaching, but rather in a populist movement akin to a Tea Party within Methodism. This populist movement has been frustrated by the way that bishops are allowed to make discretionary decisions about how to handle clergy behavior regarding the LGBT issue that seem to flout the populists’ democratic authority as expressed in General Conference voting (which of course would have gone the opposite direction the last several quadrennia if it were only US delegates voting).

Nobody talks about submission and obedience to the pastoral discretion of the bishops as a matter of principle that dictates we hold our tongues and not question how the bishops decide to handle those pastors’ decisions that contradict the populist will of General Conference. I suspect there’s a lot of crossover between the libertarian anti-government fervor of the past three decades and the disdain for the Methodist hierarchy among the socially conservative populists. The actions of the bishops are basically akin to President Obama using executive orders to avoid deporting undocumented immigrants when Congress refuses to reform our immigration system. Can Obama do that? Apparently so. Do the bishops have the authority to go light on their punishments for United Methodist pastors who are brought up on charges for officiating gay weddings? Whether or not the Book of Disciple says something to the contrary, the organic power dynamics within United Methodism right now give the bishops an actual authority that trumps the authority of our majority-vote Book of Discipline, which the conservative populists want to have the ultimate authority since they have been able to control its composition for the past forty years. Our de facto covenant is episcopal rather than democratic.

Whether it’s right or wrong for bishops to have de facto authority that supersedes the Book of Discipline, I think that United Methodists who are disturbed enough by this state of affairs to be unable to move forward in ministry should go in peace and start a new movement just like Wesley did. That would channel their zeal into something constructive. Let them plant new churches. Church-planting is where the most growth happens in United Methodism anyway. Perhaps as an act of good faith, the progressives could help raise money to send the breakaway conservatives on their way, though I doubt funding would be a problem. All the big donors who have closed up their pocketbooks to United Methodism on account of its ambiguity on homosexuality would rain down a hurricane of dollar bills if they learned there was a new gay-free Wesleyan congregation in town that didn’t have to pay apportionments to the General Board of Church and Society. Perhaps on their fundraising letters, the breakaway conservatives could use the logo I put as a graphic with this blog post, a cross and flames next to a rainbow flag with an X through it.

Instead of ripping apart existing faith communities by having majority votes on whether to affiliate with one of two new denominations, the breakaway conservatives should be given permission to solicit members from existing United Methodist churches who are disgruntled with their pastors’ leadership, whether it’s because of homosexuality, an insufficiently emphatic stance on the Bible’s inerrancy, an overemphasis on social justice, an unwillingness to say plainly that all non-Christians will burn in hell forever, or a similar matter. I’m sure every United Methodist pastor could provide the breakaway conservative pastors with a list of members who are dissatisfied with their leadership in this way.

All of the disgruntled conservative United Methodists within each Methodist district could come together to form one new breakaway conservative Wesleyan megachurch plant. They could call themselves a Bible church or a community church. Why would they want to retain brand association with a denomination that has marketed itself for years as “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”? Maybe the new Methodist denomination could be called “Bible-Believing Methodists” or more to the point “Gay-Free Methodists.” Or just retire the Methodism brand altogether and go with “Gay-Free Bible-Believing Wesleyans” (GFBBW — it almost sounds like the name of a Methodist general agency).

That seems like a win-win to me. That way you don’t have any closet homosexual supporters in the new congregations, since the only people who join them are people who are passionate enough about opposing homosexuality that they’re willing to leave their old world behind and start from scratch just like Abraham did when he left Ur. There are plenty of disgruntled church members throughout our denomination who would walk out of their congregations tomorrow and never look back if they had a pied piper to call them away. If God is with them, then God will honor their radical faith and obedience by making the new breakaway conservative megachurches huge and successful so that their pastors can point back at the floundering United Methodist Church twenty years from now and say thank God we got off that ship. Of course, it might also be the case that the newly purged United Methodist congregations in those communities would experience some revival of their own.

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  • I tweeted this excellent post!

    This is exactly what happened in my church, The Episcopal Church, and we are enjoying relatively peaceful waters now. Happy to be there! ACNA is happy to be where they are.

    • MorganGuyton

      I just hope that whatever we end up doing isn’t as dragged out and toxic as the battle in the Episcopal church. At least in Virginia, it was really awful.

      • True — God deliver you all from that mess.

  • Mark Demers

    Morgan – you are sounding a bit “disgruntled” yourself in this post. Except for the tenor and tone of the piece, I think the sentiment you express deserves serious conversation; and I hate to say that because I am in favor of doing the hard work of staying together. (I am also aware that: while Wesley started a new movement, he never actually left the old one.)

    • MorganGuyton

      I’ve gone through it a couple of times so far to try to weed out my initial snark. I’ll look over it again.

  • Valerie Van Kooten

    This is great and would apply to any number of denominations today, including my own, the Reformed Church in America. My experience in breakaway churches has been…when a denomination is in a “split” mindset, things go well for a while until a new issue arises to split over. I know denominations that have progressively split five to six times over 50 years over smaller and smaller issues.

    • MorganGuyton

      My hope is that the people who want communion would stay and the people who want ideological purity would go. If they end up splitting multiple times after that, so be it.

      • Valerie Van Kooten

        True. You would hope they would leave on their own. However, in denominations where the individual congregations own the building, it so often degenerates into a legal battle. I was part of this 16 years ago. It broke up families, marriages, and friendships…horrible.

  • Jim

    Just curious. Since the current stance, affirmed by every General Conference since 1972, is that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, why wouldn’t we call for those who seek to condone it start a new movement? Now, before you all beat up on me, I am not recommending one stance over another. I served in the largest LGBTQ community in the Southeast for six years. Just wondering why we would ask those who uphold our current language to leave.

    Also, I think there are some assumptions made in this article that may not be accurate. One example is “I don’t know of a single United Methodist bishop who denounces homosexuality consistently and unequivocally.”

    I’m interested in conversation, not argument or demagoguery, which is where, unfortunately, most of these conversations end.

    • Stephen

      I know 2 Bishops who denounce it when asked personally. I am waiting for them to make public statements. I also fully agree with Jim about making those that are aligned with the current BofD leave. How does that make sense? People don’t expatriate the country because they agree with laws, they expatriate because they do not want to operate within those laws for whatever reason. If the BofD is not changed in 2016, I would encourage that there is either a separation, or those that want to change the stance leave to start their own denomination. Asking those that agree with the stance to leave, again, makes no sense.

      • MorganGuyton

        Again in the current state of affairs, the bishops are choosing to exercise their pastoral discretion in how they enforce the Book of Discipline. Those who find it acceptable for there to be a prohibition against same-sex marriage on the books that many bishops will not defrock a pastor for violating have no reason to go anywhere. We have a de facto “compromise” that no one is happy with. It’s not a question of whether it’s fair or not. Right now, our bishops’ authority supersedes the Book of Discipline. If that works for you, great. If not, go in peace.

        • davidt57

          It’s not “pastoral discretion” they’re exercising. It’s ignoring clear church law in favor of their own convictions. That’s not pastoral discretion. It’s anarchy.

  • Pastor Mike

    After following several blogs, and reading numerous articles related to the issue of homosexuality and United Methodism, I find few references to the real issue. Is homosexual practice sin or not? Does the Bible teach that homosexuality is sin or not? There are clear teachings in the Bible that adultery is always sin. There are many other human behaviors which are always sin for a believer in Christ.

    If homosexual practice (not attraction) Is sin in God`s word, no bishop, no pastor, no lay person has the right to call it anything else, for God is the only true authority. Therein is the problem for men and women who do indeed believe homosexual practice is sin. We are not evil, unloving, narrowminded, or judgmental people. We are simply asking that the church be faithful to what God has said in His word

    • MorganGuyton

      I don’t believe that the Bible teaches monogamous homosexuality to be sinful. I have written about my interpretation here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mercynotsacrifice/2013/08/20/what-is-the-burden-of-proof-in-the-methodist-homosexuality-debate/

      • Pastor Mike, I agree with Morgan above — but even if it were a sin, since when did Jesus teach us to bother with other people’s sin? He told us clearly to worry about our own sin, directly with him, as we love God and love others. Paul told us whatever is not done of faith is sin. Let’s start there.

        • Pastor Mike

          Following your logic, it appears that a Chistian is never to judge sin. For example, if a practicing pedophile applies for ordination to ministry in a United Methodist conference, the character of that person should not be a limitation. That would be bothering with another person`s sin?

          • Jesus summed up all the commands in two twin commands: love God and love others. Molesting a child has devastating consequences; it clearly flies in the face of loving others, as well as common sense. Jesus called on common sense when he told the Pharisees they would surely pull out their fallen sheep on the sabbath. Common sense must prevail. That is the whole point: guided by love (God and others), every law will gain proper perspective. To deny people’s orientation brings destruction; to deny a pedophile access to children is to protect those children and society. The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Or, the law was made for man, not man for the law. Law cannot lead but only support. Love must lead.

  • davidt57

    This blog is an unfair representation of the situation. And more than a little snarky. We have pastors, bishops and entire jurisdictions that have refused to abide by the rules expressed in the Book of Discipline, resulting in more and more church trials and, in some cases, more flouting of the rules. Those rules were put in place and maintained by the vast majority of voting clergy and lay delegates at the General Conference, by a two-to-one margin or more, not a “populist movement” like “the Tea Party.” The delegates at GC voted, in agreement with scripture, that homosexual sex is sinful, that we’re not to perform same-sex weddings and we’re not to ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” If some choose to not abide by the BOD, why shouldn’t THEY be the ones asked to leave? In fact, the big discussion today is not about asking anyone to leave, but setting up what could be viewed as a “win-win” situation, where both sides go there ways to two new denominations without penalty, to do what we believe God has called us to do. Each congregation votes and each pastor chooses which way they’ll go.

  • Morgan, thoughtful as always. Thank you.