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North Georgia Co-Sponsor Explains Withdrawal of CM Conference Motion


By Dr. A Bruce Webster 

Report and analysis by a co-sponsor of the Confessing Movement resolution prepared for the North Georgia Annual Conference.

A resolution that the North Georgia Annual Conference declare itself a Confessing conference by affirming that Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior, and Lord in accordance with the confessional statement of the Confessing Movement of the United Methodist Church was co-authored by Dr. Bruce Webster, Gordons Chapel UMC and the Rev. Patricia Looper, Faith UMC-Riverdale.  The resolution was intended for presentation at the North Georgia Annual Conference meeting held June 16-19, 1998, and was ultimately co-sponsored by the pastors and individual laity of Faith UMC-Riverdale, Gordons Chapel UMC and Gateway UMC.  This effort arose out of the committment of individual disciples of Jesus Christ to serve God.  The church establishment, neither on the liberal side nor the conservative side knew the motion was coming until the Annual Conference meeting was in progress.

The resolution was strongly opposed in the Resolutions Committee meeting held on Wednesday, June 17.  This committee would not even vote on whether it should be allowed to go forward until all the Preamble and Whereas statements were stripped from the resolution.  These outlined the problems in the United Methodist Church and explained the nature of the Confessing Movement. One clergy member of the committee objected to an assertion in the text of the resolution that to continue to deny Jesus Christ and reject the authority of Scripture would lead to the death of eternal souls.  The final form of the resolution that was voted on by the committee consisted only of the part that the North Georgia Annual Conference declare itself a Confessing conference by affirming the Confessional Statement of the Confessing Movement.  Only 2 votes were cast in favor of the resolution.  It was to be presented to the Annual Conference, therefore, in "non-concurrence" by the Resolutions Committee.

The conservative political insiders in the North Georgia Conference, both clergy and laity, were dismayed to discover that a Confessing resolution had been brought to the Annual Conference meeting.  It was these conservative insiders, not the conference liberals, who immediately closed ranks against having the resolution be put to a vote by the Conference.  From the time they discovered the existence of the resolution on Tuesday, they put incessant pressure on certain of the co-sponsors to have the resolution withdrawn.  They said that the timing wasn't right for such a resolution.  They indicated that they were afraid that the vote on the resolution would be embarrassing to the North Georgia Conference and to the Confessing Movement since no advance work had been done to collect votes in favor of the resolution.  No prominant conservative pastor indicated willingness to speak in favor of the resolution, except the Rev. Charles Sineath of First United Methodist Church Marietta.  Some influential individuals who are generally considered to be evangelicals said they would move that the resolution be tabled if it was actually presented to the Conference.

The unrelenting pressure wore on the co-sponsors of the resolution so that by Thursday one of the co-sponsoring pastors came to the view that the resolution should be withdrawn.  A lay delegate, also a co-sponsor, indicated that if the resolution came to the floor he would declare objection to it, thus effectively killing the resolution.  Under the circumstances, the remaining co-sponsors in attendance at the conference felt they had no alternative but to accept that the resolution be withdrawn.

One positive thing happened, however.  The original resolution copies were distributed to the floor of the Conference so that everyone got a copy before anyone could intervene.  Many delegates subsequently expressed disappointment that they were not allowed the opportunity to vote on the resolution.

The reasons given by the conservative establishment for why a Confessing resolution should not be presented to the North Georgia Annual Conference need examination.  Is advance work by individuals more important than the work of the Holy Spirit?  Is potential embarrassment, either to the Conference itself or to the Confessing Movement, a sufficient reason to withhold such a resolution?  Embarrassment is not necessarily a bad thing.  It can be a great motivator to change one's attitudes.

But who would be embarrassed?  There are four possible outcomes of a vote on a Confessing resolution.  The resolution could pass easily with a large majority or just barely with only a small majority vote.  It could fail just barely with a large minority vote or lose badly with only a small number of people voting for it.  None of these possibilities should be embarrassing to the Confessing Movement.  Every one of them could be embarrassing to the leadership of the North Georgia Conference.

A strong win for the resolution would be a great affirmation for the Confessing Movement.  This outcome should not embarrass the Conference, if the Conference were thought of as an organizational division of God's people.  Modern-day Methodism, however, is defined and represented by the church leadership, who are primarily elite clergy.  A strong vote in favor of the resolution would be an acute embarrassment for the leadership of the Conference because it would be a clear declaration that the people of the Conference do not accept the theological diversity embraced by many of the UMC leadership.  Conference conservative insiders, themselves, should have hoped for strong Conference support of the resolution. One must wonder at their motives for being against the resolution.  At the very least, they appear to have been pessimistic about a strong vote for the resolution and were evidently so worried about the alternatives that they were unwilling to trust the Lord for the outcome.

A close vote for or against the resolution should not embarrass the Confessing Movement, but instead make it obvious that work is required to convince people of the need for a clear, unambiguous confession of Jesus Christ.  The same vote would embarrass the Conference leadership because it would show that the United Methodist Church is divided, not united, on matters central to the policies of the leadership.  The UMC leadership worships the idol of Unity, and works to convey the notion that unity is more important than our need to be true to our Lord Jesus Christ.  Recent writings of many of the UMC bishops are dominated by admonitions for unity regardless of differences of theological opinion.  Even Bishop Davis, whom many had hoped would call the UMC to renewal in Christ, gave prominance to unity in his speech to the Confessing Movement conference in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in April, 1998, but did not acknowledge that the requirement for uncompromising faith in Christ might supercede unity in the existing UMC.  Unity keeps the UMC Connection together.  Unity keeps apportionments flowing and keeps the connectional superstructure funded.  Unity keeps careers in the connectional leadership going.  Unity subsidizes special interest agendas.  A vote indicating serious division among Methodists regarding fundamental beliefs of the UMC would legitimize efforts by congregations to dissent effectively against UMC leadership policies and erode support for the church connection as now constituted.  It would also demonstrate to Methodists and to the world that the United Methodist Church could not make a clear biblical confession of faith in Jesus Christ, with the result that the denomination would no longer be considered Christian in the eyes of many believers.  Would the Conference leadership want these logical consequences of a close vote on the Confessing resolution to see the light of day?  I do not believe so.

I think the last possibility, i.e., a strong rejection of the Confessing resolution, would be unlikely in the North Georgia Conference.  Nonetheless, even this would not be an embarrassment to the Confessing Movement.  It would merely mean that the Conference was a mission field for christians, and the Confessing Movement could plan accordingly.  To the Conference leadership, however, a clear rejection of the Confessing resolution would demonstrate that the Conference had gone astray from biblical Christianity during their watch.  Whether this would be an embarrassment would depend on the point of view of the particular church leader.  Some might think it good.  Others who have not rejected Christ outright but who have condoned heresies in the church might find themselves forced to abandon their comfortable compromise, and be embarrassed at having to admit failure in the performance of their jobs.

Jesus Christ himself pointed out that even though he came to reconcile people to his Father in Heaven and to establish peace for the reborn children of God, his ministry would bring conflict and division.  In Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus says, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. [35] For I have come to turn " 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-- [36] a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' " Many people reject the grace of God and even take offence at it under the terms to which it is offered them.  It is not an easy thing to acknowledge the extent of our own evil and the extremity of sacrifice that Jesus had to endure to make our atonement possible.  The biblical assertions that we are in need of atonement, that we need to be reconciled to God, that we need to be transformed in character, and that these are possible only through repentance and submission to Jesus Christ are hard teachings for anyone.  Many refuse to accept God who requires these things, preferring instead, regardless of the prodding of the Holy Spirit, to create a God in their own minds who would embrace them more easily.  Since some people surrender to Christ and others resist him, conflict and division must arise in groups which try to unite both kinds of people.  True unity is possible only among those who believe in Jesus Christ, for it is only these who have been brought into the family of God.  In making his point in Matthew 10:34-36, Jesus also made clear that he would do what was required by God regardless of the controversy that arose, and that those who would follow in his service would do likewise.

The text of the North Georgia Confessing resolution acknowledged that unity can exist only among people who believe unconditionally in Jesus Christ, as taught in the Bible, and that unity between these believers and others who hold nonbiblical theological views is impossible.  Unfortunately, nonbiblical theological views flourish in the modern-day United Methodist Church.  Although it was hoped that the North Georgia Annual Conference could unite in support of the Confessing resolution, the resolution itself was never construed as a unifying document for all Methodists, because this is not possible in the existing UMC.  Rather, it was prepared to give the  the North Georgia Annual Conference the opportunity to test its willingness to make a biblical confession of Jesus Christ.  Had the resolution won, Methodist christians everywhere could rejoice, and those who live in an apostate spiritual environment in other conferences could take encouragement.  Had the resolution been defeated in a fair vote, at least those opposed to such a confession would have had to speak against it, clarifying the division that exists between bible believing christians and other Methodists who prefer non-biblical theology.  As it turned out, however, the only people tested were the conference conservative insiders.  They came up wanting.  It seems that even they have succumbed to the idol of Unity.  The presentation of a serene front to the world was more important to them than to trust God and openly tackle serious problems in the church.

Sincerely in Christ our Lord,
Dr. A. Bruce Webster

Author's note: Work responsibilities prevented me from attending more than the first day of the North Georgia Annual Conference meeting.  Prior to publication of this report, the Rev. Patricia Looper and the Rev. Robert Passmore, who were also co-sponsors of the Confessing resolution and who attended the entire Conference, reviewed the report and confirmed the accuracy of its details.  Sincerely, A.B.W.

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