The UMC Inquistion Arrived While The Centrists And Progressives Fiddled

The UMC Inquistion Arrived While The Centrists And Progressives Fiddled May 27, 2019

The centrists and progressives fiddled our love of God and of all and paid no attention to the call for a doctrinally defined church, sure that such an idea would not ever pass sophisticated theological muster, forgetting the people don’t want sophisticated theology that leads to open borders but simple answers and big, massive walls against outsiders.

The centrists and progressives fiddled as the camel took over the tent

Over five years ago, I warned the good folks in The United Methodist Church that the doctrinal inquisition was soon to come.

At that point, I suggested this would happen (and you can read the fuller discussion here):

My prediction: Without a sworn oath that the BOD will be upheld in its entirety, which no one can possibly do and still be actually engaged in ministry, clergy will lose their ordination status, their appointments, the defined benefit portion of their pensions (substantial for older clergy) and their health insurance. Actually dividing up those assets and properties will be such a logistical, legal and financial nightmare that the victors will simply claim all assets as theirs.

As one who carefully observed the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Church (now at its lowest membership numbers in 30 years), the signs were everywhere. Then, accused sexual molester Judge Paul Pressler and the admittedly sexist and misogynist Dr. Paige Patterson, engineered the takeover, made everyone sign doctrinal purity documents and especially cleansed the seminaries of any who did not hold to their version of the truth, particularly of the inferior place of women in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Joining the company of these despicable men, Mark Tooley (IRD), Keith Boyette (WCA), Rob Renfroe (Good News), along with their various henchmen who populate their version of the smoke-filled rooms, have duplicated the process, simply substituting LGBTQI+ folks for women.

And here’s my next prediction: in the newly cleansed United Methodist Church, for with their voting power, they’ll get the name, women will not be far behind in the cleansing operation. There is no way those men can hold to their interpretive hermeneutic and permit women in senior pastoral leadership or serving as Bishops or District Superintendents. The divorced should go as well, but is possible that such a decree will step on too many big-moneyed toes, and thus will be ignored. Lord willing, people of color will still make the cut. But one never knows, because an organization based on rigid doctrines never seeks the wideness of God’s mercy as a starting point or even a way station.

I did try to sound the warning. So did a few other voices crying in the wilderness. In the process, I also sought to keep my own hermeneutic of grace and insist there was room at the table for all of us, for conservative, for centrist, for progressive voices, so we could continue to inform one another, sharpen one another, approach together the Lord’s Table in humility and self-giving love.

Now I know I was misguided in seeking to keep those doors open and voices heard, as were those who insisted that the UMC could continue to operate as its historically durable and gracious big tent. Once the fundamentalist camel gets its nose in the tent, nothing will stop it from a total takeover. (See below for the fable of the Camel’s Nose if you are not familiar with it).

Yes, the centrists and progressives fiddled with words of grace and hope and connection and unity without the need for uniformity. We fiddled with hopes of diversity, not realizing that fundamental human nature fears diversity above all and longs for homogeneity, for the ease of only having to be with like-minded people, and loathes the loss of power that comes from fully open doors.

The centrists and progressives fiddled our love of God and of all and paid no attention to the call for a doctrinally defined church, sure that such an idea would not ever pass sophisticated theological muster, forgetting the people don’t want sophisticated theology that leads to open borders but simple answers and big, massive walls against outsiders.

In other words, we ignored the realities of the human condition. We insisted our words and our music could transform them into something genuinely replicating the kingdom of heaven vision offered to us so eloquently by Jesus, especially well-articulated in Luke 4. We thought we could camp on the witness of the Book of Acts where the formerly unclean were pronounced fully clean, where previously rigid boundaries and barriers to words of grace came crashing down, and where gatherings of God’s people featured wide-open doors and questioning minds.

We thought that the words of Paul, the ones that declared forever dead the separations between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between male and female meant what they obviously do mean: from now on, ALL are fully included, fully empowered to live out the freshness of life in Jesus.

We fiddled, dancing on the Holy Scriptures, and thought that would be enough.

But, of course, in the human condition, might makes right. In the witness of Holy Scripture, the words where by grace breaks through yet once more always come from the margins. But when operating from the not-yet-perfected human condition, the majority of votes means “God spoke,” a stance for which there is not one iota of Scriptural support.

We fiddled like Joshua Bell in the subway, never managing to engage the people as they went on to do precisely as planned, no time to stop and think, to consider the moment, to feel the brush of angel’s wings.

The seminary purge plans are surfacing now, along with those for all the General Agencies and Boards. Either agree that “practicing” one’s gayness, i.e., engaging in the normal human need for relational human intimacy or, even having a same-sex roommate, is unacceptable (it will be phrased so much nicer, of course), or get out.

Now has come the time to eliminate all who disagree with them and their hubristic one-and-only-one-way to interpret the Holy Scriptures, this complex collection of 66 books by multiple authors, written between 2000 and 4000 years ago that not a single one of them has ever read in its original iteration.

I tried to sound the warning bell but heard in return that my words were inflammatory, not helpful, unnecessary.

On this one, I was right.

Now, it’s time to pick up the pieces and, in the glorious words of Genesis One, actually live out of our calling to be in the image of God. Time to engage in the process of re-creation, of bringing fresh order out of the chaos of the destructive takeover.

Now is the time. Let’s stop fiddling and start creating anew.

The Camel’s Nose In The Tent

One cold night, as an Arab sat in his tent, a camel gently thrust his nose under the flap and looked in. “Master,” he said, “let me put my nose in your tent. It’s cold and stormy out here.” “By all means,” said the Arab, “and welcome” as he turned over and went to sleep.

A little later the Arab awoke to find that the camel had not only put his nose in the tent but his head and neck also. The camel, who had been turning his head from side to side, said, “I will take but little more room if I place my forelegs within the tent. It is difficult standing out here.” “Yes, you may put your forelegs within,” said the Arab, moving a little to make room, for the tent was small.

Finally, the camel said, “May I not stand wholly inside? I keep the tent open by standing as I do.” “Yes, yes,” said the Arab. “Come wholly inside. Perhaps it will be better for both of us.” So the camel crowded in. The Arab with difficulty in the crowded quarters again went to sleep. When he woke up the next time, he was outside in the cold and the camel had the tent to himself.

Author unknown 

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  • rileycase

    I seek no purge. However, I do seek some form of amicable separation. We need to release each other to do God’s ministry as we understand it. It is obvious that several groups of us are understanding God’s ministry in very different ways.

  • Robbie

    When you have progressives coming out of Methodist seminary questioning and “evolving” from belief in the Resurrection and Divine nature of Jesus Christ, there’s no surprise we’re in this place. A split is sadly long overdue or those who want to follow a new age could simply join the Unitarian Universalists, because they are not significantly different in their theology or lack thereof.

    It seems it’s really about money. A group of ordained clergy opining that they should continue to be paid and supported by the UMC when so many of them are categorically high paid atheists with collars and pompous titles.

    • Kate Johnson

      Money is definitely key to why the conservatives have made it so difficult for the disagreeing churches to split. Because they know how much of their money comes from those east and west coast tithes and they didn’t want to make it easy for those churches to disenfranchise themselves. It won’t work though, because in the end, if the disagreeing churches don’t split off from the UMC, they will ultimately lose most of their congregations anyway, who don’t want to support regressive fundamentalism. So either way, the conservatives should get ready to do a quite a bit of belt tightening, as all those liberals leave the church and take their tithes with them. You all may have to re-evaluate your commitments.

    • Jason Evans

      I think you are a terrible and evil human being.

      • Robbie

        Well, I don’t think the same of you.

  • Reese

    On the other hand, we of the traditional side, have watched our church slipping away for decades. We allowed liberal seminaries to welcome and encourage non-“traditional” individuals to attain their positions to be clergy in a denomination which had unambiguous rules against homosexual clergy and marriage.

    We, led by spineless or liberal bishops, ignored increasing numbers of homosexual clergy and their increasingly vocal opposition to our rules. With the appointment of an openly lesbian bishop, we realized that we had let it go far past the point where our rules meant anything.

    So, now the inevitable end to the UMC. Had the One Church charade passed, traditionals would be in apoplectic rage just as the progressives are today. We are divided beyond reconciliation and, in the name of God, we need to accept the situation and deal with it using a minimum of funds and fights. Let us all go our own ways in Peace. I do not have to agree with the homosexual progressives to respect their rights to worship as they choose. Do they respect mine?

    • Kate Johnson

      This is exactly why people are leaving the churches in droves. So many claiming Christ are literally no different in any way than unbelievers, except being more judgmental, more intolerant, and deeply entrenched in Iron Age reason. Showing the love of God to the world? No that’s definitely not what you’re showing them, not at all. Seems like there’s lots of talk about grace, or the love of God, but when the associated, actual behavior is observed, there’s little to nothing resembling Christ in evidence. Just as selfish, just as unkind, just as mammon worshiping, just as addicted to comfort. What are you all showing the world? That your God isn’t powerful enough to inspire you to love each other, let alone your enemies. It’s why so many just don’t buy it anymore.

      • Reese

        Geeeez!I thought my post most conciliatory. I am certainly against making homosexuals attend a church which will not allow them to marry in it by homosexual clergy. Wouldn’t they have the same respect for my traditional values?

        • Kate Johnson

          So, in your view, this is what love looks like? Because if what’s happened in the UMC is how you all treat people you supposedly love, I’d hate to see how you all treat your enemies, which you’re also supposed to love, but clearly do not. Funny how you all seem to have and endless supply of grace for yourselves, when it comes to your own consistent failures to live out, and live up to the sacrificial love of God in the world, but sadly that grace seems in quite short supply when it comes to the people you don’t understand or disapprove of. Like a living example the parable of the unforgiving debtor (Matt 18:21-35). That’s why your proclamations of faith do not ring true to the observer. They say where is the evidence of what you claim to believe in this? They are saying if this is what “love” looks like, I think I’ll just stay home. Many churches these days look far more like a tribalistic, self congratulatory social clubs, than anything extraordinary or supernatural. Us vs Them. There couldn’t possibly be anything more natural than that.

          • Reese

            Sorry, Kate. Your response talks of things I did not mention. My point was exactly what the Constitution says, “Freedom of Religion” . We should all have the freedom to worship in the way we feel right with. In the UMC today, there is no single way. There are at least two ways and we should work together to accommodate those of different religious views. That’s America to me and the right way to treat those who want a different church doctrine.

          • Kate Johnson

            Actually didn’t the conservative side pretty much establish a “my way or the highway” decision here, and make it as difficult as possible for the disagreeing churches to leave? How is that “two ways”? How is that “the right way to treat those who want different doctrine”? How is the conservative side doing anything whatsoever to “accommodate” the other side? In fact, there’s been absolutely no consideration, compassion or compromise coming from the conservative side at all throughout this entire process. They stamped their feet and got their way right down the line without exception. Their message is clear, “do it our way or get out” to the straight folks, and to the LGBTQ community, just “get out”. You guys seriously need to change your motto. Closed hearts, closed minds, closed doors, is far more accurate now. But hey you’ll be comfortable in your little social club, so what does it matter if it’s a horrible witness to the world, that reminds many of why they quit going to church, or would never wanted to go in the first place, and how all that talk about God is antiquated nonsense that’s all talk no walk? Comfort is king after all. Not Jesus. It’s too bad too. There’s such an overabundance of science denying, bigoted, intolerant, fundamentalist churches out there. They are a dime a dozen. The thing that made the UMC distinctive and appealing for many, it’s openness, has now been lost, and with that loss, they will likely also lose all the people who came to the church for that reason. What’s left then, is just one more fundamentalist, church in a very crowded field with a rapidly shrinking audience, at least in the first world.. And with the exodus this decision will inevitably inspire on both the west and east coasts, will the UMC even exist at all 25 years in the US? If it does, it will be in a greatly diminished capacity. Given all we’re seeing now, perhaps that’s for the best.

          • Reese

            Me thinks she doth protest too much… Anyway, there is no way my attention span would allow me to read all that. May we both be served by two Methodist denominations.

        • Jason Evans

          Conciliatory?! Perhaps it is best if everyone now go their separate ways. There cannot be any more reconciliation with a people who have dedicated their lives to evil. For we have indeed learned something from this challenge that God put before you.

          For conservatives and traditionalists, Church is a game. It is simply a mechanism to generate social cohesion. And it is usually played on the backs of some group they’ve identified as being hated by God.

          Then that group stood up and demanded to be let in. And they showed you that it is YOU who are the violators of the commandments of God. You read your Bibles for how to throw people from His Kingdom, missing the ENTIRE point of Christ’s ministry.

          And in their ministry, you found out that Christ’s ministry meant you had to live with and sit next to people who held to 99% of the same values as you – even to the point where they learned from you and adopted the norms of marriage.

          But you couldn’t. You cannot live without division. And so you screamed and vomited and screamed and vomited until the whole thing was destroyed. And now you are sharpening your knives to repeat what every single false religion has repeated since the beginning of time.

          There is indeed an end to this story. And it is a bad one. For you kicked Christ out of your church. Enjoy this pure little social club now. For that is all it is.

          • jekylldoc

            Oh, brother! I get that you have little idea how conservative religion works within the religious person, but “dedicated their lives to evil” is way beyond anything we Christians are called to conclude about people trying to be godly. If you have some insight to share about the functioning of conservative religion, it is much more likely to be valuable to anyone if you do some reflection about how you could explain the problem so that there is a chance the potential beneficiary could make sense of it.

            I have been in this struggle for nearly 50 years. I have seen some incredibly insightful and spiritual people bring actual change. But never once in all that time have I seen a positive result come out of condemnation and demonization.

    • jekylldoc

      But did you ever engage in dialogue, to understand the reasons why progressives have made the changes they did? Are they just “our rules” or have those who did not accept them made real contributions to the spiritual life of the church?

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Wow. Witnessing the death of a church is heartbreaking. As a teenager, I left the Southern Baptist Church for the United Methodist Church, and it was a haven. I am greatly saddened to read of the death knell. It is a tragedy anytime that man thinks that he knows better than God. This is what I see happening.

  • Rudy Schellekens

    Well, when you have a Book, written with the teachings defined and to be upheld by a General Synod,, it is not easy to make changes. And if you want to do things by vote, then you should know that there is always a winning side, and always a losing side.

    Each side will have their view of what happened (He stole the election from me… if it wasn’t for the illegal votes, I would have won both sides).

    Those within the UMC who do not see Scripture the same way as the “progressives” feel vindicated. Had the vote been for the “progressives,” the other side would have written your article.

    One could make an argument for local autonomy – but I guess it’s too late for that one…

  • Ivan T. Errible

    You never mention the elephant in the room: the Philippine and African churches. You “celebrated diversity” and somehow forgot to ask what the people coming from these churches abroad actually thought.

    Sound as if you thought that simply paying a lot of their bills would be enough for them to be grateful.

  • soter phile

    Progressives fiddled? Only if by ‘fiddled’ you mean jettisoning core tenets of the faith…

    When you can twist the Word of God to mean anything, it is not the ‘camel’ that has pushed you out of the tent.

    • Jason Evans

      I suspect you will end up with the goats. For you have violated the commandments of Christ by turning His Church into your club with walls. Such Christianity is simply a game, not a religion. Perhaps you should get on your knees and ask Christ into your heart before it’s too late.

      • soter phile

        So… you’re invoking Christ’s dividing the sheep & goats…
        to tell me I shouldn’t invoke such a distinction between sheep & goats?

        Perhaps you should notice that your problem is with Christ, not me.
        As CS Lewis wrote: he’s not a tame lion.

  • kcwookie

    Divide to your heart’s content. In the end it won’t matter.

  • jekylldoc

    As with the older, more famous Inquisition, follow the money. Amazing how “doctrinal authority” ends up being directed by the opportunity for monetary gain.

    • soter phile

      relevant: many of the mainline splits in the last century featured the “progressives” holding the property, money, holdings, etc. – while the conservatives walked away from their own buildings and became the growing church.

      • jekylldoc

        Though hardly all.
        There was also a time when ecumenism was financed by wealthy idealists. But it took a lot of money to get conservatives riled up against peaceful coexistence. Interesting that big money now prefers division rather than common ground.

        • soter phile

          Money? You are assuming the least of those with whom you disagree.

          Consider the PCUSA as an example. Before the recent split, they were debating the divinity fo Christ at their General Assembly. Hard for anyone to argue that is not a central tenet of the faith.

          No, there were legitimate reasons to get ‘riled up.’
          After all, these ‘conservatives’ were the old moderates.
          The conservatives left in 1929 & again in the 70s & 80s.

          Blaming money simply dodges the substance of the debate.

          • jekylldoc

            No, I would not be interested in dodging the theological substance. But the notion that a minority of the American church has to disfellowship the majority because churches in developing countries are scandalized by all that high-falutin educated talk kind of leaves a person scratching their head. Plenty of U.S. Methodists would agree that current practice is unacceptable, but it took a sponsored, well-funded push to get people riled up enough to make common cause with non-Americans in the interest of making their version the only acceptable version. The reasons may have been “legitimate” but the enforcement of condemnation is highly questionable.

            As to what is a central tenet of the faith, we both know that changes from time to time, starting with whether doctrine is even the defining characteristic of the faith. Paul did not say, for example, if I speak in tongues and prophesy, but have not correct doctrine, I am nothing. You can make a pretty strong case from the book of Acts, and the kerygma in the early parts, that divinity on the part of Jesus was not central to at least a large part of the early church.

          • soter phile

            a) the mainlines are dying precipitously and have been for decades.
            “majority” is no longer the correct term.

            b) you said: …because churches in developing countries are scandalized by all that high-falutin educated talk…

            i always find it ironic when progressives claim to be advocates for the marginalized, but then when that group speaks for themselves in disagreement, they are immediately dismissed as ‘uneducated’. call this what it is: ethnocentrism.

            c) so you’re pointing out that people were upset before, but it took some money & organization to make it happen? isn’t that true of most movements? if you agreed with their point of view, would you even raise this point?

            d) you said: …making their version the only acceptable version…
            the fact that multiple different cultural contexts agree on the appropriate interpretation of the Scriptures here – should give one pause before dismissing their opinion out-of-hand. All the more when the one doing the dismissing is simply agreeing with one’s own immediate cultural milieu.

            d) you said: As to what is a central tenet of the faith, we both know that changes from time to time, starting with whether doctrine is even the defining characteristic of the faith.

            No, we do not. Now you are assuming the very opposite of my point.
            On peripheral matters – especially adiaphora – maybe.
            But not central tenets (think: Apostles’ Creed; or 1 Cor.15: “things of first importance”).
            Again, the divinity of Christ is not up for grabs – and never has been (e.g., Php.2).

          • soter phile

            Responding to below comments… which strangely have no “reply” option:

            1) yes, in the current US UMC that is true – that may be the majority position… but again, there is tragic irony there as well as that denomination is dying precipitously. numbers do not ensure faithfulness, but certainly such a dramatic & decades-long drop should give one pause (especially when seen across the vast majority of mainline churches interpreting the bible with a similar hermeneutic).

            2) anecdotally “knowing lots of” group X does not defeat the critique. and – especially when speaking cross-culturally – it begs the question about precisely what constitutes “education.” are we denying their biblical knowledge? or (more accurately) is the critique levied that they have not adopted Western academic/progressive paradigms?

            “inclusivity” itself (read: the term) begs the question. there is no such thing as diversity for diversity’s sake. what is the underlying basis for saying “this, not that” (an inherently exclusive – especially doctrinally) claim. humanity runs to homogeneity. the fact that the bible repeatedly calls for inclusion of the Gentiles… presses the question: on what basis? if the same God who says “group X must be included” also says “but that behavior/inclination/desire is enslaving and must go”…

            again, what is the basis of this education? who is the authoritative voice? the academy? traditional church teaching? the text as best understood? in context? etc.

            certainly the African Church has a strong basis for pushing back against Western predilections. hence the (accurate, IMHO) label “ethnocentrism”. it’s a thinly veiled conceit: they disagree, so the response comes “but our schools are more sophisticated.”

            3) money is misused on all sides. making an exception for “when my side” does it is the same problem as ethnocentrism. it’s a dodge. it’s the nature of caricature: reducing the other group to nothing but ‘that thing’ – big ears, big eyes, big nose, etc. that’s how caricatures are drawn.
            “when i lie, it’s just a fib; but you lie, you are a liar… it’s your identity.” that’s the problem with caricatures: “my side is 3D, but your side is solely that thing: 2D.” it’s dishonest about a shared condition – just so one can dismiss the other side.

            similarly, your dismissal of all complementarians because you’ve heard or seen someone misuse it. again, that’s true on both sides. and it dodges the primary question in view: what is being taught here?

            4) similarly, it is disingenuous to separate orthopraxy from orthodoxy. Jesus called out both sides – those who ignored doctrine and those who ignored the living out heart of the faith. No doctrine concern? why did he constantly quote the OT, much less insist on certain interpretations over another? he called out Sadducees for not believing in a literal resurrection (Mk.12:24f). he pressed Pharisees with David’s exception to the Sabbath. he invoked a singular word in Ps.110 to argue for his own divinity.

            as for Paul not focusing on doctrine as salvation – what do you think “Lord” means? or believing in the resurrection? (Rom.10:9 is the simplest formulation I can think of… yet it is directly doctrinal and practical.) Likewise, Jesus doesn’t just say “follow me”, he asks: “who do you say that I am?” neither is doctrine nor action is sufficient alone. the Christian life is purposefully meant to be comprehensive (Love the Lord with all your heart/soul/mind/strength).

            SUM: when “open and affirming” means embracing things Jesus explicitly does not affirm, who are we following? the same passion that leads the progressive church to reject (rightly!) racism and injustices should also lead them to submit to the Lord who defines justice and righteousness. Jesus has hard things to say to all of his followers – but refusing to listen & submit to His Word because we assume we already have the correct paradigm is Pharisaism today. That is happening all across the spectrum – not just on the Right.

  • B.J.D

    Sounds like the UMC is getting back to basics and that’s a good thing.

    • Ivan T. Errible

      Basic what? Basic nonsense? Because that’s all religion is.