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Living Up to Our Name

A Proactive Strategy for an Evangelical Future in the UMC
By James A. Gibson

"United Methodism stands at a crossroads." I believe I first heard that statement several weeks prior to the 1992 General Conference. Since that time, hardly any assessment of the future of our denomination has not included this or some similar statement. The issues which have brought us to this "crossroads" have pretty much been the same even before 1992: the authority of Scripture, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the importance of doctrine, and homosexual practice (modulating between simple acceptance, ordination and marriage).

It occurs to me, as the first General Conference of a new millennium approaches, that eight years is a long time to be "standing at a crossroads." This is especially true for those of us who call ourselves "evangelicals." Our name identifies us as persons who believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative Word of God and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who was crucified for our sins, was resurrected in triumph over death, and will return again to judge the living and the dead. But our name ought to imply something more than just a belief in the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. To be an evangelical means not only to believe that faith in Jesus Christ is the only means of gaining eternal life, but also to be proactive in sharing this Good News with every man, woman and child.

Are we, as evangelicals, living out everything our name implies? Or, are we still "standing at a crossroads" as the new millennium dawns?

Over the past three decades, we evangelicals have invested a great deal of time into perfecting the art of defending the faith. We have developed quite an impressive roster of apologists, including Thomas Oden, William Abraham, Maxie Dunnam, Mark Horst, Les Longden and the late Bishop William R. Canon. There can be no doubt that such able defenders are needed in order to articulate the evangelical tradition within United Methodism. But stating what we believe is only part of the picture. We have become quite accomplished in this area. But is it possible that evangelical apologetics has become an end in itself? Have we sacrificed mission for maintenance; the redemption of lost souls for the respect of liberal elites?

Matthew 28:16-20 is one of the most familiar passages in all of Scripture:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

It is dangerous to become too familiar with such a passage, as many evangelicals have. We know it by heart, but how much of our heart do we put into obeying it? For many United Methodist evangelicals, and I must count myself as chief among them, the ongoing conflict within our denomination has provided a convenient excuse for ignoring the Great Commission.

I would suggest there are two steps which evangelical United Methodists must take to reinvigorate our passion for both revival within our own walls and the lost souls in need of redemption.

  1. There must be a practical, not a formal, separation from those within our denomination who adhere to beliefs and practices which have historically been judged by the Church to be apostate.

  2. There must be a cultivation of stronger ties with evangelicals across denominational lines in a unified effort to fulfill the Great Commission.

  1. There must be a practical, not a formal, separation from those within our denomination who adhere to beliefs and practices which have historically been judged by the Church to be apostate.

A "practical separation" from the apostates within our denomination should begin with the withdrawal from any further participation in the "Dialogues on Theological Diversity" and other similar intellectual endeavors.

Some will argue that the intent of the ongoing "dialogues" with members of the theological left is to offer them an opportunity to hear the Gospel. I doubt that even the evangelical participants would be so naive. The very nature of dialogue involves both sides hearing each other out in an attempt to come to a common understanding. Thus far, the only common understanding to come out of these academic exercises is that evangelicals and liberals have a different understanding of divine revelation. So deep is this difference that it is appropriate to conclude that the two groups constitute not two different interpretations of the Christian faith, but two different religions--one which is Christian; one which is not. But were two "dialogues" really necessary to make this fact clear?

Continued participation by evangelicals in these nonsensical "dialogues" is not good stewardship of our time and talents. Participation in them only reflects a desire among our leadership to be "respected" and "understood" by the theological left. We need not be concerned with what reprobates think about us. Rather, we need to be concerned--very concerned--with what God thinks of us "evangelicals." We claim to believe in the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into all the world, yet we neglect such proclamation, leaving the lost to die in their sins while we expend all of our energies trying to come to an "understanding" with persons who have heard the Gospel and rejected it.

Another poor investment of our time is the futile attempt to charge under the Discipline the publicity hungry rebel pastors who are obsessed with "homosexual unions." We have tried to use "the system" to hold such persons accountable and we have found "the system" is corrupt and ineffective. It only works to the advantage of the rebel pastors, giving them the free publicity which is their aim from the start. If such persons really believed there was something "sacred" about "gay marriages," they wouldn’t make such a public spectacle of them. If we stopped playing this little game with them, they would quickly be seen for what they are--cheap hustlers using religion as a means of drawing attention to themselves. The public would quickly lose interest and these buffoons would fade away into the eternal darkness reserved for their kind.

It is time that we, like Paul, said to the stubborn apostates among us, "Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles." (Acts 18:6).

  1. There must be a cultivation of stronger ties with evangelicals across denominational lines in a unified effort to fulfill the Great Commission.

Our cultivation of stronger ties with other evangelicals should have a twofold purpose. First, we should celebrate with them all that we have in common, namely, salvation in Jesus Christ and an eternal Gospel to share with the people of every race and nation. The recent document, "The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration," signed by evangelical leaders of various traditions, including Maxie Dunnam and Thomas Oden, is an excellent start. We should also engage in cordial conversation with organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and Mission America.

Second, in joining with them, through such endeavors as the ongoing "Celebrate Jesus 2000" evangelistic effort, our purpose will be singular and unified: to fulfill the Great Commission, living up to what the name "evangelical" implies. We will thus insure both that the Methodism of the future will have a distinctive evangelical presence and that the evangelicalism of the future will have a distinctive Methodist presence.

As we faithfully carry out our Savior’s command to "Go into all the world and make disciples," the big tent of United Methodism will expand ever more widely. New believers with their testimonies of life-changing experiences with the Risen Christ, healing of diseases, freedom from bondage to sin, and deliverance from oppressive demonic forces will begin to renew, revive and redefine the denomination. The heat will be too much for the apostates. They will either be consumed and converted by it or they will flee from its presence. Either way, the apostasy and wickedness they have sought to inflict upon the church will cease to be a problem--and it will all be God’s doing, not ours.

Eight years is a long time to be "standing at a crossroads." It is time for evangelicals to take up the cross and get moving on the road that leads to revival.

James A. Gibson
Marshallville United Methodist Church
Marshallville, Georgia

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