The Future of the United Methodist Church

Pastor Tom Anderson, from Highland UMC in Highland MI, wrote an interesting article about The Future of the United Methodist Church from his perspective. This was shared by Rev. Walter Fenton, from Good News, and we share it with you.

The Future of the United Methodist Church

By Pastor Tom Anderson

Big changes are going to come to the United Methodist Church. At the last general conference in 2016 a special study commission was formed and given the title “A Way Forward” Their task is to discuss the various options to resolve our denominational conflicts through restructuring the entire church. They will bring their findings to the council of Bishops who will then make a formal recommendation to a special session of the General Conference in 2019 in St. Louis. The General Conference is the official decision making body of our church and the only group who can speak for the church. They create our Book of Discipline that forms the basic by-laws and structure of the church. Normally they convene every 4 years to do business. This will be the first called special session of the General Conference in the history of the denomination called United Methodist. It will be a momentous event that will bring major change to how we organize ourselves. Expectations and anxiety is running high.

We have had a 45 year running debate over homosexuality. There have been at least two study commissions, numerous books and study materials created and distributed over the years. Efforts to liberalize the position stated in our Book of Discipline have occurred and failed at every General conference. The voting margin of failure has been increasing of late and in 2016, liberals were unable to get their proposals out of committee to be voted on by the General conference. This has led liberal leaders and supporters to the breaking point of frustration.

Our teaching on human sexuality has always been Biblical and unambiguous. The following statements are from our Book of Discipline:

We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons. (Book of Discipline para. 161F)

Self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church. (Book of Discipline para. 304.3)

Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches. (Book of Discipline para. 341.6)

We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. (Book of Discipline para. 161.B)

Certain basic human rights and civil liberties are due all persons. We are committed to supporting those rights and liberties for all persons; regardless of sexual orientation…we support efforts to stop violence and other forms of coercion against all persons regardless of sexual orientation. (Book of Disciple para. 162J)

The debate in our denomination has changed dramatically. Liberals are no longer seeking to engage with the legislative process of the General Conference. Instead, a minority of Bishops and clergy have taken to acts of rebellion and nullification of the Book of Discipline. Most recently the Western Jurisdiction took the unprecedented step of electing Karen Oliveto as bishop. Oliveto is married under California law to another woman. Other bishops have refused to sanction clergy who openly break church law. The United Methodist Judicial Council has declared that Oliveto was an invalid candidate yet it is unlikely that she will be removed from office. This has brought the United Methodist Church to a governance crisis. We are no longer debating ethics. We are now asking if we are a church and does the General Conference matter? Does the Book of Discipline matter? Even liberal bishops recognize that the time to retreat into simple cries for unity has passed. We are at a turning point that demands a major restructuring or division of the denomination.

The legal and moral high ground belongs to those who support the General Conference. Those clergy and churches who abide by the Book of Discipline and the official governance of the church are not the problem. They are not divisive, uncooperative or in any way undermining the good order of the church. It may be tempting for evangelical and orthodox United Methodists to withdraw or quit in disgust over this conflict but the truth is that evangelical, orthodox United Methodists are holding all the moral and legal cards. Legally it should be clear that the people who support the United Methodist Book of Discipline are going to inherit the future of the church. Now is not the time for them to give up.

We will not thrive again as a denomination until we resolve this conflict. The statistics are very clear. The United Methodist church in North America is in an accelerating decline in membership and attendance. This has been the case for 45 years. All sides—left, right and center—agree on two things 1) that we must act quickly and decisively to come up with a plan for membership growth, and 2)No plan can succeed until we resolve this conflict.

We hold a clear view of scripture as a denomination and it is secured in the constitution of the denomination:

We believe the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.  Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation. (United Methodist Confession of Faith)

The real issue in this debate is the authority of the Bible. Human sexuality is merely a presenting issue. The deeper conflict is over whether or not scriptural teaching should rule the life of the church. While Karen Oliveto’s lesbian marriage is notorious, it is a lesser known fact that in her public sermons and speeches she has denied the incarnation, the atonement and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. One has to wonder about the integrity of church leaders who neither support nor cooperate with the church that employs them.

We hold a strong faith in the sanctifying power of Jesus Christ to enable a holy life. This faith is also secured in the constitution of the church:

We believe sanctification is the work of God’s grace through the Word and Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will, and to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self.  Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought earnestly by every child of God.

We offer the hope of sanctification to all people who experience sinful desires, temptations or addictions. We place no limit on the power of God to transform sinners. This conviction comes from the Bible and guides our ministry to LGBTQ people and their families.

The Methodist family is the second largest body of believers in the world. The World Methodist Council is a collegial body of many denominations who share a Wesleyan heritage. The council represents a group of 80 million Christians, making it the second only to the Roman Catholic Church in size. The Methodist family is growing rapidly at a rate of over 1 million each year. Almost all of this growth comes from outside North America most notably in Latin America, Russia and Africa. These are very exciting days for the Methodist movement.

We United Methodists are a global, evangelical church. From our beginnings we were never a North American church. Our African brothers and sisters now make up more than 30% of our General Conference delegates and this number is rising. It is estimated that at current rates, the African delegation alone will be in the majority within 20 years. The African church is lively, enthusiastic, thoroughly evangelical and growing. This new reality is our future as a Methodist movement. We are not going to become progressively more liberal. We have become a global, evangelical church and this is our future.

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2) This verse reveals how to understand this moment. God is judging the people called United Methodists in North America. Some branches of our church are going to be taken away. We are going to be pruned. This is not a disaster but I believe it could be the prelude to the biggest renewal in our church since the days of John Wesley. If we can emerge from the change to come with a strong identity and a unified moral vision then we are going to start growing again and planting new churches together. This fills me with great hope for our church. We must be guided by hope not fear.

I remain committed to be your pastor. I am not going to walk away from my United Methodist membership vows. I will continue to support this church with my prayers, my presence, my gifts, my service and my witness. I will continue to keep my ordination vows with integrity especially the promise I made to keep the Discipline of the Church and to defend the church from all teachings that are contrary to the Word of God. As long as you will have me and I can still remember your name, my plan is to serve you for another 10 years.

We must not let this distract us from our main mission. I am not here to lament, complain, despair or talk negatively about people I have no control over. I am here to build relationships with new people, to share Christ, make disciples, teach the Bible, pray, support and equip lay leaders, lead worship, preach the Gospel, feed the hungry, save marriages, strengthen parents and families and do all the good in all the ways I can. Satan wants us to take our eyes off the ball and if we follow his temptation we will strike out. Let our agenda as an Administrative Council be on mission and ministry: Connecting people to Christ; Growing People in Christ and Serving people in Christ’s name.

The best thing for us to do right now is to wait patiently for the next two years. When the change comes, it is likely we will need to make some choices on a local level. This will be divisive and painful because our congregation is diverse and we are not all of one opinion on these matters. No matter what we choose some branches are going to be taken away and some are going to be pruned.

I have joined the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is dedicated to supporting the United Methodist Book of Discipline in all of its doctrinal and ethical teaching. The Association was formed in reaction to the governance crisis in our denomination. It was formed to provide a way for orthodox, evangelical clergy and churches to deal with the major changes coming. If necessary it could provide the structure for a new denomination. It includes bishops, churches, lay people and clergy from every annual conference who want to see the Methodist movement begin to grow and thrive in North America. I encourage you to visit their website at www.wesleyancovenant.org. The association requires its members to sign a statement of support for its doctrines and beliefs and a small membership fee of $100 a year.

Finally I ask you to pray with your eyes wide open. Major change is certain. Pray that the heavenly vinedresser will indeed prune his branches so that we can once again grow and bear fruit.

If you have any questions about what you have heard or read about developments in our denomination, feel free to talk with me. Some resources for further study:

  1. “Homosexuality and the Bible” by Wayne Grudem, found in the ESV Study Bible and also online as a PDF file at http://www.wacmm.org/The_Bible_and_Homosexuality__Grudem_and_Piper_.pdf A quick introduction to the basic Biblical message.
  2. The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hayes. Hayes is the foremost United Methodist scholar in New Testament and teaches at Duke Theological Seminary. (HarperSanFrancisco 1996, 508 pp) See especially chapter 16 on homosexuality.
  3. The Bible and Homosexual Practice by Dr. Robert A.J. Gagnon (Abingdon 2001, 520 pp) Gagnon is professor of New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. An exhaustive and detailed study of the entire Biblical message. His strong and clearly articulated argument establishes the unified witness of the Bible in defining same-sex relations as sin.
  4. How Should We Respond: An Exhortation to the Church on Loving the Homosexual available for free at www.focusonthefamily.com

5. Making Sense of the Bible by Adam Hamilton. Hamilton is pastor of United Methodist mega-Church of the Resurrection in Leawood Kansas. Here he makes the liberal case for reinterpreting scripture and re-making the sexual ethics of the church.

Ruling On Gay Bishop Could Be Far Reaching

United Methodist News writer Heather Hahn details how the latest Judicial Council ruling will have far reaching effects beyond the homosexual bishop currently serving the Mountain Sky Area of the Western Jurisdiction. Click here to read Heather’s complete article.

The Reverend Keith Boyette, president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the lawyer that spoke to the Judicial Council during their recent session, provides further insight into the meaning of the recent Judicial Council ruling.  To quote Rev. Boyette, ‘. . . a cloud covers her episcopacy and the cavalier way in which she was nominated by her annual conference, elected by the Western Jurisdictional Conference, consecrated by her fellow bishops and assigned by the jurisdiction’s committee on episcopacy.  The manner in which these bodies have dealt with the requirements of The Book of Discipline has caused great harm to the church.’ Click here to read Rev. Boyette’s complete article.

Following the recent rulings from the Judicial Council, the ruling related to the nomination, election, and consecration of a homosexual bishop has taken front page. There were several other significant rulings issued which affirm the Book of Discipline‘s place within the church. Walter Fenton and Thomas Lambrecht write about these other rulings. Click here to read their complete articles.