United Methodism’s Future, Part II: History and Doctrine

Note: This is a follow up post to my previous blog entry on recent events in the United Methodist Church [UMC].  This entry will focus on the historical basis of UMC doctrine.  Although I could never be considered a theologian or church historian, I will write on my understanding from learned people who fit that bill.  If there is anything worthy in this writing, all glory to God.  If any misstatements or inaccuracies, they are all on me.  To Almighty God in Heaven be all glory, honor, and praise!

If you perchance read my last post, I am grateful.  But regardless, I will attempt to succinctly sum up the essence of the issue:

  • The United Methodist Church has experienced a 40+ year decline in membership since the 1968 merger
  • The chief issue surrounds the authority of Holy Scripture, more specifically regarding boundaries in human sexuality, the definition of marriage, and qualifications for ordination of pastors and bishops.
  • A called General Conference [GC] in 2019 affirmed the traditional position on these matters
  • A diverse group within the UMC agreed to a plan and protocol of amicable separation, given the firm divisions in the church
  • This group pledges to support legislation at the regularly scheduled May 2020 GC to implement the Plan of Separation

Fair Disclosure:  I consider myself a conservative evangelical in support of traditional Christian doctrine handed down by the saints of the past (faithful followers of Jesus Christ pledged to contend/defend the faith once and for all entrusted to them ~ Jude 1:3).

Sources:  Re the doctrinal history of the UMC, I rely heavily on the treatise “The Trust Clause Governing Use of Property in the United Methodist Church:  Faithfulness to the connection according to established doctrinal standards” by Thomas C. Oden, the late esteemed professor at Drew University School of Theology.  

Abbreviated Doctrinal History of the UMC

  • The Official Doctrine of the UMC has been established since the earliest days of Methodism [Late 1700s], and includes:
    • Wesley’s Standard Sermons
    • 25 Articles of Religion [condensed from the 39 Articles of the Church of England]
    • Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament
  • These doctrinal standards were further confirmed by the Confession of Faith, adopted in the 1968 Methodist-EUB merger
  • The First Restrictive Rule of 1808 states: “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter or change our Articles of Religion, nor establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine.”
  • Bishops and ordained clergy are sworn in under an oath which includes a requirement to defend the doctrine enumerated above, or be subject to disciplinary action
  • Although perhaps not well-known by the average United Methodist, UMC doctrine is officially well-protected from addition, deletion, or dilution.  It would require ¾ of the annual conferences to affirm the change, and 2/3 majority in the General Conference.  To my knowledge, this very difficult constitutional test has never been met.

My Commentary on UMC Doctrine and these matters

Despite these very strong protections, and that fact that UMC doctrine (as defined above) is substantially in alignment with post-Reformation traditional evangelical faith, I feel that many in the denomination have violated their vows by preaching and teaching a different gospel.  Unable to officially change UMC doctrine, many have sought an alternative way, with the knowledge that (for the most part) no disciplinary actions would follow.  Such persons have espoused, or taken part in heretical/apostate teaching [see below], administered or approved [even through inaction] same sex ceremonies [in violation of the UM Discipline], and ordination/appointment of ministers who are in same sex relationships [also in violation of the Discipline]. 

Several years ago, I was one of several signatories bringing charges against a retired bishop.  The bishop was teaching and writing material that clearly denied key tenets of the Christian faith [not just UMC], such as the denial of the virgin birth and denial of the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The matter made its way to the Council of Bishops, who held a proceeding but took no action against their episcopal colleague.  Although thankfully over the years certain pastors have been disciplined via church trial, others such as the Bishop in my case, have not.

Salient points:  I state the above without personal animus toward any (including the retired bishop); quite the contrary, I love each with the love of Christ.  It is with much sadness that I give the assessment above.  If I am in the wrong in any way, I humbly ask forgiveness.  One last point; any one sin is no more, or no less egregious than any other.  None of us are without sin. 

Separation without Anxiety?

Because I have long believed we are at an impasse within the UMC, I am glad that a plan is moving forward to allow the UMC to be divided into at least two distinct denominations.  One will be a Traditional (conservative/evangelical) offshoot, while the Post-Separation UMC [PSUMC] will almost certainly be more liberal.  The PSUMC is planning for a vote (after a successful separation vote at GC2020) to remove language prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.  How this will be accomplished given the First Restrictive Rule, I am unsure.

Following separation will be a period of transition, in which annual conferences and local churches will align with specific post-separation denominations.  I am asking all fellow UMs [and others] to pray for Almighty God’s guidance and discernment in these matters.  Although these are weighty spiritual matters, we should not be anxious about them.  Our Heavenly Father is already moving in this process.  I pray that the decision of my heart, and that of my local church, will be according to His will.

There will be no denominations in Heaven, only the redeemed Body of Christ.  We operate as imperfect beings within man-made affiliations; the membership thereof will not save any of us.  Let us yield our will to that of Christ, fall before Him in humble submission, and ask Him to renew and restore us.


United Methodism’s Future

**NOTE**  This post is aimed primarily at fellow UMs, but may be of interest to any who are concerned with the future of evangelicalism, rightly dividing the Word of Truth, and making disciples for Jesus Christ.  While there are sharp (and deeply held) convictions about the issues described below, my goal is and always will be to speak the truth in love, even if others do not consider my words to be so.  There is no intent of animus, and I love each of my fellow UMs with the love of Christ.  If there is any fault or error below, the blame rests with me.


A Brief Refresher

The current United Methodist Church [UMC] is the product of a merger which occurred in 1968.  Since that time, membership and vitality of the UMC in America may be fairly characterized as “on the decline.”   American UMC membership has declined by approximately 4 million since the merger.  In contrast, the UMC in Africa and the Philippines and other parts of the world is growing.   Further, there appears to be a large disconnect between the laity in the pews and the episcopacy [bishops] and institutional leadership of the UMC Boards and agencies, and most denominational seminaries. The laity [and thankfully many pastors] tend to be more conservative and traditional in their views than these denominational leaders.  The chief issue between UMs over the last several years concerns human sexuality and the definition of marriage.


Not just a Sexuality Issue

Every four years at General Conference [GC], petitions to change the historic teaching of the UMC on human sexuality [which prohibits ordination of practicing homosexuals and same-sex marriage ceremonies] are brought forward, and are continually defeated with substantial and generally growing margins.  I (along with many other evangelicals) believe the crux of this debate to be the larger issue of the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.  I believe that God created humanity [in His image], and also created marriage between one man and one woman.  Any expression of sexuality outside these bounds is not in harmony with Scripture.  That said, homosexuality is no more a sin than heterosexual adultery, or other forms of sex outside monogamous heterosexual marriage.


2019 Called General Conference

The UMC convened a called GC in 2019 to address potential solutions, ahead of the regularly scheduled GC2020.  The GC2019 affirmed [yet again] the traditional stance of the UMC.  While the vote caused consternation and resentment among many, I believe it was the correct decision and again reflected the views of many in the pews.  The vote was also important in that it led to a greater understanding of the need to explore options for separation.  A diverse group representing both traditional and progressive viewpoints has since met and adopted a Protocol Statement supporting a plan of “amicable separation,” and a pledge to support legislation at GC2020 to implement this plan.


Amicable Separation

Perhaps some in the denomination have not wanted to contemplate the “break-up” of the current UMC [understandable to a point), but it has been an inevitability for some time.  We are and have been a much divided denomination.  Having to endlessly deal with the same issue at successive General Conferences detracts from our mission [“You have nothing to do but save souls” – John Wesley].  Thus, I was pleased to read that a group had reached agreement to allow UM annual conferences, individual churches, and each UM to determine which of the successor denominations to affiliate and worship with, once the UMC is separated into components [initial steps planned for GC2020].  Certainly, a planned amicable split is much preferred to an unpredictable contested breakup.  I will be in prayer about the upcoming GC, and I urge all reading this to join me.  Truly, prayer and fasting is called for at times such as this.


The Protocol Statement

The diverse group mentioned above issued their Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (“Protocol”) on January 3, 2020.  There is a lot we do not know yet, and I am making generalities, but I will be referring to that part of UM that is moderate-progressive as the Post-Separation UMC [PSUMC] and the more traditional part of the church as Evangelical Methodism [EM].  The reason for this distinction is that the Protocol provides a separate plan for the traditionalists, as we will see below.  Among the provisions of the Protocol:

  • Annual Conferences [AC] and local church [LC] congregations may vote to join one of the new denominations formed under the plan of separation. At least one Traditional denomination will be formed, with a block of UM funds to be segregated for the EM denomination(s).  Otherwise, such conferences or churches would become part of the PSUMC.  Individual UMs would be able to follow their church/conference decision, or could move to another church that best reflects their beliefs.
  • Conferences and churches that vote to leave shall maintain their assets and liabilities
  • All current UM clergy would keep their pensions, regardless of their eventual denomination
  • Annual Conferences [USA] may choose [through a 57% majority] to affiliate with a different denomination than the PSUMC.
  • Interestingly, Central Conferences [non-US] require a 2/3 vote to disaffiliate from the PSUMC. Why the tougher threshold?  Theologically, the Central conferences would seem to align more with the EM denomination, but have a higher threshold to get there.  My own personal feeling is that many of the African UM churches would leave UM altogether than be affiliated with a church that further deteriorates positions on human sexuality.  Just my thoughts.
  • A local church may vote [with majority threshold set by church Council] to affiliate with a denomination different than its AC


Next Steps

  • The Judicial Council of the UMC [the denominational “Supreme Court”] must declare any proposed legislation originating out of the Protocol as constitutional.
  • Prayer and love and grace are needed in ample quantities as this process moves forward. These are not easy decisions by any means.  As a “lifelong” UM myself, it will not be easy to think about the post-UMC landscape.
  • No matter where we stand currently on the UM spectrum, we love and respect with dignity those who align elsewhere
  • I pray that amicable separation will be healthy for the mission of the sharing the gospel, making disciples, and impacting our world for Jesus Christ