Church Split Headline: The Orthodox And The UMC

Church Split Headline: The Orthodox And The UMC January 1, 2019

What will the headline about the UMC read after General Conference 2019? Probably not much different than the one on this New Years Day, but will quote bishops, rather than patriarchs, for the comments. And it will be all about money, clothed with the language of “we are orthodox, and they are not.”

church split headline

The headline grabbed my eye when I opened the New York Times today. Without reading the sub-heading, I first thought, “Oh no–the coming UMC split has now made the front page of this paper.”‘

However, this one is not about us–it’s about the split about to happen in the Eastern Orthodox Church as the Ukrainian church seeks to separate itself from the Russian “mother” church. If it does happen, the Russian church will lose about 1/3 of its members, a huge hit.

Russian dictator, Vladimir Putin, is not a happy man:

Speaking at his annual news conference in Moscow in December, Mr. Putin signaled Russia’s determination to resist the rupture, warning that any redistribution of property as part of the fissure “could turn into a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed.”

As always, the resistance is far more about the money, not about the faith. Even so, their battles sound eerily familiar:

Both Russia and Ukraine trace their origins to a 10th-century federation of Slavic peoples that embraced Christianity, called the Kievan Rus’, and are fighting to claim the mantle of Orthodoxy for themselves.

No room at the UMC inn

The proponents of a UMC split, i.e., the traditionalists who insist that there is no room at the inn for anyone who falls outside the clear demarkations of absolute binary sexuality, also “claim the mantle of Orthodoxy” for themselves.

Assuming they get their way, there will also be no room at the inn for any who stand firmly on the side of a broader understanding of God’s grace, one able to embrace a world vibrant with color and ambiguity and unanswered questions.

These are the nature of religious fights. They are perhaps less common in the Eastern Orthodox church since the original east-west split of 1054, but such fights have deep roots in the Roman Catholic heritage that most of the Western church today, including The United Methodist Church, ultimately hails from.

The Dome, part of the convention center complex in St. Louis, MO, probably should be renamed “The Arena” for a few days in late February this year. From February 23-26, spectators will watch the “gladiators,” i.e., the elected delegates, engage in a battle that will very likely lead to the schismatic death of the UMC.

I am aware that many, many reasonable voices are being raised that provide for good plans and adequate spiritual and organizational space that could keep us together.

But those who simply cannot admit to a wider orthodoxy insist that the rest of us leave. I wrote about this more extensively here in a post I called “The Mean Girl Manifesto” where I expressed my dismay at the punitive nature of the plans submitted by those self-proclaimed “orthodox” ones.

Our fights are nothing new

Last summer, I spent several weeks reading and pondering the excellent book by historian Michael Massing:  Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind.

The fight between Luther, the prototype fundamentalist thinker, and Erasmus, the prototype liberal thinker–both with unshakeable roots in the Christian traditions, both with a kind of classical knowledge most of us can’t even dream of–nearly perfectly foreshadows the fight between the “orthodox” traditionalists and the “heretical” progressives in the United Methodist Church today.

I found it a fascinating and tragic read, full of blood, hatred, intolerance, destruction, “fake news,” mud-slinging, and character assassination, all coupled with an inability to listen to the other points of view with generous and kind ears.

For me, the book was particularly compelling because the author, a Jewish historian, is not someone who was aware of current UMC issues. Massing spent ten years researching and writing the book. During that time, he read the entirety of the voluminous writings of both Erasmus and Luther.

He had no idea how their words, extensively quoted in this work, would impact those of us who now expect the same fight, the same battles over what is and what is not “orthodox” from 600 years ago, to destroy United Methodism now.

I wish everyone would read it. It’s exquisitely researched and well written, although long. And it reveals our souls.

Ultimately, Luther won—and it was his influence and his extreme hatred of Jews that sowed the seeds that eventually contributed to the German-led Holocaust. But John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, most definitely made the most of both Erasmus, with his use of classical literature to lead to wider views of God and grace, and Luther, who helped Wesley gain a greater understanding of how God goes before us and does the work leading to our salvation.

Wesley put them together, part of his patchwork but functional theological base. Our current crisis will tear them apart. John Wesley’s legacy of holding both sides in tension will likely soon disappear.

A fundamental physical reality informs our spiritual truths

There is a fundamental physical reality that none of us can escape, no matter how much wishful thinking we may practice. It is this: nothing ever stays the same. The physical world stays in flux–everything moves all the time.

This is true from the tiniest particles to the greatest of all masses–it’s all moving. With that movement, everything is changing all the time. Some of those changes are visible–like volcanic eruptions–but many are more hidden. Even so, all that movement, from the infinitely small to the infinitely massive, impacts everything else.

Awareness of the nature of constant change also offers greater awareness into the nature of our spiritual lives.

We are a long way from the biblical world

We do not live in the days/times/epochs during which the words given to us in the Bible were put down on paper or papyrus or carved in stone or repeated by generations over the campfires.

This distance does not make those words less valid or less full of truth. However, the distance means we dare not read today’s understandings into ancient texts and assume we properly understand how those truths manifest themselves today.

Below is a photo of the majority of the book of Isaiah found as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls collection. How much of this can you read–you yourself, without the interpretative changes made inevitable by the translation process? How much of the history of the time, the challenges facing the people, do you know? These are legitimate questions when opening the Holy Scriptures.

The Book of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls

The idea that anyone, however uneducated, can take a verse, translated by someone with his (almost always male) biases, yank it from its context and pronounce it as “this is the absolute word of the Lord” is not just nonsensically preposterous. It is also without either intellectual or spiritual validity.

Yet, that is how most people hear the Bible interpreted.

Today, several isolated, poorly interpreted “clobber verses” that purport to declare any outside the sexual binary as unacceptable to God or to the church will be the weapons used to bring the UMC to its knees and rip it into pieces.

What will the headline about the UMC read after General Conference 2019? Probably not much different than the one on this New Years Day, but will quote bishops, rather than patriarchs, for the comments. And it will be all about money, clothed with the language of “we are orthodox, and they are not.”

Photographs of the January 1, 2019 print edition of the New York Times by Christy Thomas.

Fatal Discord book cover:

By Photographs by Ardon Bar Hama, author of the original document is unknown. – Website of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 


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  • Ivan T. Errible

    Church is boring.

  • Cynthianna Matthews

    It never ceases to amaze me how people (mostly men) will tear apart and destroy unity within a community just to get their way to exercise their prejudices. They ignore Jesus’ teaching to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and decide that some human beings (homosexuals in this case) aren’t worthy of being called their neighbors. This only demonstrates that they care more about enforcing their hatreds than showing God’s love. He who is without sin… Such people need to take a good long look in the mirror before they attempt to destroy the UMC.

    • Ivan T. Errible

      Women should leave religion and stop wasting their time on fairy tales.

    • Kate Johnson

      It stems from a lower level of consciousness that is stuck in a either/or world and simple cannot go beyond that, reflecting a serious lack of depth and spiritual maturity which limits their ability to understand the teachings of Christ. They reinterpreted them to fit in with their us vs them, comfort seeking worldview. I know because I used to be one of those people.

  • John C Holbert

    First, Mr. Errible, anyone who says “church is boring” has never seriously been in one. But to Ms Thomas. I could not agree more with your comments. The so-called “Orthodox” UM’s, many of whom I know well, are simply frozen in some sort of time warp, and almost completely devoid of the one thing many church folk lack-humility. It is beyond comprehension how anyone could proclaim, with a straight face, that what they know is all they need to know. 2019 is a light year away from the early centuries of the biblical record, and because that is true, the Bible cannot serve as well as a rule book for modern folk. That way lies ruin. I am an ordained UM clergyman, and I shudder to see how many of my colleagues just cannot see how shortsighted and arrogant they are. Open your eyes to the new things of God! Is.43:18-19 remains one of the great texts for those who would seek to live faithfully in the current day.

    • Ivan T. Errible

      I’ve been in many; they’re all boring.

      And there’s nothing there you can’t get outside, and for less money and with less trouble.

      • Obscurely

        Trolls who keep saying the same thing over and over and over are boring …

        • Ivan T. Errible

          Trolls don’t get tax breaks though, do they?

        • Kate Johnson

          Never feed a troll. Pearls before swine.

  • Reese

    There is a very large, new non-denominational church in the small town next to mine. It did not exist around ten years ago. They have been meeting Sundays in a roller skate rink for years, but just moved into their new sanctuary last month. Christmas service had 540 Christians singing, celebrating and enjoying the company of other Christians. Local population growth is single digit, but the national abdication of traditional values, morals, and common sense by some Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Methodists evidently left a bunch of protestants searching for a new home. I attend services there, but I have not joined. I guess I’m just waiting and hoping my old traditional Methodist Church will give me a call and say, “We have split, No more UMC. We are no longer affiliated with liberalism. They went their way, we have returned to ours. Come on home!” Love that old song, “Gimme That Old Time Religion!”

    • Kate Johnson

      Yes, people like you can only love those you approve of. How not like Jesus. I imagine you’d have stood in line to throw the stone at the adulterous women and shunned the woman at the well.

      • Reese

        I don’t hate anyone. We Methodists are welcoming to all sinners in our pews. But, to accept a homosexual clergy in our pulpit or a homsexual wedding in our church gives a certain legitimacy to a lifestyle we do not accept. We traditionalist will have no part of that. That isn’t hate, that is our culture, our morals and our beliefs passed down for thousands of years.

        • Kate Johnson

          The Methodist church has not been around for thousands of years and your orthodoxy and interpretation of the Bible is wildly different than earlier orthodoxies. The bottom line is obviously this, gays make you uncomfortable. You don’t want to be uncomfortable, especially in church (i.e. your little social club were you are never challenged or made to feel uncomfortable). It has little to nothing to do with God. I’d have a lot more respect for people like you, if they were honest about this instead of dressing it up in a bunch of nonsensical piety. Thankfully, little of the younger generation shares your views.

          • Reese

            My culture has had rules against homosexual lifestyles for thousands of years. The roots of Methodism is our Bible of thousands of years condemns the homosexual lifestyles. If the rules are ambiguous to you, then look for any positive references to those lifestyles, any examples in any stories. Was it Adam and Eve or Adam and Steve? Starting there. What makes me uncomfortable is liberals wanting me to legitimize lifestyles that do not fit the moral codes of my forefathers.

          • Kate Johnson

            You’re culture is thankfully dying off with you.

          • Reese

            We showed some serious signs of life just now in St Louis! LOL

          • Kate Johnson

            How many of those last gaspers are over 70. Quite a few I’d measure. You only make yourselves more and more irrelevant as your pews empty out. We don’t think epileptic seizure are demon possession anymore either.

          • Leigh Williams

            Just determined to kill and dismember the Body, aren’t you? You can be the Southern Methodist Church – AGAIN. Truth in advertising, Reese. Truth in advertising.

          • Nick

            Those “condemnations” of homosexuality are a single line in a book written thousands of years before Jesus. Jesus himself never said anything about homosexuality, but he did give us the two rules of Christianity:

            1. Love God.
            2. Love your neighbor.
            That’s it. That’s all there is to it. All the rest of it is prevarication, rationalization, and interpretation trying to justify the selective application of Rule 2. And Jesus saw that coming, because he reminds us that whatever we do to anybody, we also do to him.