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Commentary


2008 UM General Conference - Fight or Flight?


Should the UMC Divide?
by Dan White

At the 2004 General Conference delegates who are part of the Confessing Movement in the UMC considered a document about dividing our church. The document became public, back peddling was done and apologies were made. Soon and very soon the 2008 General Conference will begin. Will there be more talk of division?

Marietta UMC, a mega church in the Atlanta area, split in 1998. The senior pastor and most of the congregation left behind a massive campus and formed a non-denominational church. Many medium and small size congregations have left in the Cal/Nevada Conference.

Every conservative or moderate pastor still in our connection has friends who have left the UMC for greener and purer pastures. Millions of our conservative laity are gone and will never return. They fill the ranks of the nationís non-denominational churches.

The Presbyterian Church is now the PCUSA, the PCA, the EPC and the number of splinter groups continues to grow. The Episcopal Church is, right now, in the middle of a split.

It is Time to Ask the Question

Should the UMC divide? Ignoring the question doesnít help. There are too many disgruntled conservatives who have one foot out the door already. The question should be dealt with in a straightforward way.

There are those of us who consider ourselves conservatives or moderates. We hold to the Scriptures, the creeds and the Book of Discipline. We represent classical orthodox Christianity. We need to face our options and choose.

Divide Ė As a group or one by one we can shake the dust off our feet, leave and seek greener pastures.

Stay and Accept the Status Quo - We can watch as the UMC continues to hemorrhage in numbers, societal impact and new professions of faith until the movement fades into history.

Stay and Intentionally Purify the Church Ė Instead of the theologically orthodox leaving we can work toward the day when the non-orthodox leave.

Division

The emotion of the moment has driven many of our UM friends to leave. Judicial Council or some other group in the church makes a decision which is not Biblically defensible. The world comes into the Church. Our blood pressure goes up and another of our friends decides to leave.

While we respect these former UMs and the decisions they have made we should not consider this option until we have developed a clear theology of division. When is it biblically defensible to leave? Jesus desires a united Church and we had better have a very good reason to divide.

Division is clearly justified if the majority of the church or a churchís official documents fall into heresy in the areas of Christology (who is Jesus Christ), anthropology (who are we as humans), or soteriology (how is it that we are saved). If the concepts within the Apostlesí or Nicene Creed are rejected this justifies division. Third, we can neither be in union with those who reject a portion of the New or Old Testaments nor those who add material to the Bible (canon issues). There are key ethical issues in each generation, such as sexual ethics and life which may cause a need for division, as well. The areas which justify division are therefore Christology, anthropology, soteriology, the creeds, canons and ethics.

On which of these grounds has General Conference or the Book of Discipline become non-orthodox? The Book of Discipline still includes the Apostlesí Creed and the Articles of Faith. Not a single line of the creeds has been changed. The Old and New Testaments are still our canon. We may disagree with some of the polity (how we organize the Church) in our Book of Discipline but there is no Christological, anthropological or soteriological heresy. Many years ago the votes on sexual ethics and life were too close for comfort but the general body of the church now elects its representatives with much more care. Not a single key vote on ethics has ever been lost.

At the 2008 General Conference there will be an additional 100 Central Conference delegates representing UM churches outside the U.S. Because of their tremendous growth these brothers and sisters will now have more delegates. They are clearly conservative. With and additional 10% of delegates being conservatives we have little to fear at the 2008 General Conference.

The only area where we have lost is in the media. The non-orthodox do not make up a majority of our clergy or laity but they get more press than the orthodox. Nevertheless, their loud voices do not make them a majority. Because their mouths are bigger than ours does not mean that we have lost. We can no more divide ourselves from the UMC than we can divide ourselves from Christ himself.

Emotion is not good enough. Frustration and anger are not reasons for division. The Church has not divided herself from Christ our Lord and we have no authority to divide from her until the church formally rejects pure doctrine in one of the areas mentioned above.

 

Status Quo, Ad Infinitum, Ad Nauseum

The second option of accepting the status quo is just as bad as division. We can remain in our local churches and continue to gripe and complain every time we read certain magazines, log onto certain web pages or speak with our orthodox friends. The non-orthodox in our church will always be doing something which contradicts the Bible to get into the press. Accepting the status quo means that instead of considering the world to be our parish we can hole up in our local churches. By our apathy we hand the boards, agencies, and conference committees over to the non-orthodox. By our apathy we deserve every bit of the bad press our denomination receives.

Instead of believing in a Methodist connection we can adopt a congregational mindset and be concerned only about our local church. Why fight for purity and get someone mad? It might come back to bite us at appointment time. The important thing is my church, my career, and my pension. If our church grows in numbers and depth we praise the Lord. Who cares if the next pastor is non-orthodox, doesnít preach from the Scriptures and kills the church? I am only responsible for my own actions. We say, "I am not my brotherís keeper."

This approach is not love for the Church. It is not a Biblical concern for purity. It is cowardice and sin. Not fighting for purity makes one part of the problem. Status Quo, Ad Infinitum, Ad Nauseum. Over the decades our movement will not survive this approach.

 

Fighting For Change

The final option is the only one worthy of a Christian. We fight together for a new day. A day when our church grows due to professions of faith and the making of disciples. A day when the non-orthodox know they will be challenged at every meeting. A day when they are so frustrated and fed up with being challenged by orthodox Christian believers that they transfer to another movement or another religion where they theologically belong. A day when the church is the true church and we have a major impact on society instead of the world impacting us at every turn.

The greatest defender of the faith in the fourth century was Athanasius. He was frustrated and angry but he never gave up on the Church. He wrote and argued against the heretic Arian who wanted to deny the divinity of Christ. No matter how many times of exile he had to endure Athanasius remained in the Church and fought against the heretics. He knew they had to leave and that he never would. Imagine being sent to another country, far from those you love and who love you. He suffered but he never divided from the Church. We are Biblically called to be defenders of the faith. We are called to fight for purity, not cut and run. After 50 years of casually living with false teachers in the church it is time for them to be uncomfortable in the UMC instead of the orthodox being uncomfortable.

Allow me to prime the pump and make a first stab at defining the areas which are common in our connection and outside of orthodoxy. These are not casual disagreements amongst fellow Christians. These are first level theological issues where the true church declares the non-orthodox to be outside the faith. They must cease to teach these beliefs or be challenged at every meeting.

Jesus is a great teacher but nothing more in His basic nature. He is not the Word who became incarnate in John 1:14. These non-orthodox Christologies range from Adoptionism to Arianism.

Jesus is one of the ways to salvation but not the only way. This is a rejection of John 14:6. The Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims are already saved through their path. This is a soteriological heresy and leads to the death of personal evangelism. We do not need to introduce people to Christ because they are already saved. The lack of evangelistic fervor in the UMC flows largely from this non-orthodox teaching.

Extreme readings of the Scriptures. When a person believes that homosexuality is equal to heterosexuality in the eyes of God and reads this into the Scriptures it is called interpretive gymnastics (I Cor. 6: 9-10, I Tim. 1: 8-10). Going so far afield from the original intent of the author is in essence a denial of the Old and New Testaments as the canons (authority) upon which our faith is built. This is the same non-orthodox category in which the Mormons fit when they add the book of Mormon to the Bible and consider it to have authority. The Old and New Testaments are our canons and nothing may be added or removed.

Jesus did not really rise from the dead. This denial of the historical resurrection is aimed at demoting Jesus to just another human being and making sure we do not believe Christ to be the only path whereby we will be resurrected to life eternal.

A denial of the virgin birth. Jesus is the biological son of Joseph or a Roman soldier. This is another way to deny the divinity of Christ our Lord.

Due to American concepts of tolerance and being open-minded academics, these non-orthodox beliefs are openly taught by many UM seminary professors. The result is far too many confused graduates now pastoring our churches. No longer should we feel uncomfortable in Christís church. Just as Athanasius made the non-orthodox feel uncomfortable so we must take up the flag of the church and proudly proclaim His Word.

We will be called intolerant. So be it. It will be said that we have closed minds. Yes, we believe in Godís Word. "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and inÖ" The Apostlesí Creed will be our simple response.

Since the beginning of theology movements have always been defined by what they believe and by what they do not believe. This is true of most groups. The Democratic Party platform states what they are for and equally important what they are against. Greenpeace states what it is for and what it is against. So it is with theology. We are known as a movement not just by what we believe but also by what we do not believe. Somehow the UMC has attempted to operate outside this theological truth for 50 plus years. We need to reassert what we do not believe.

By allowing our open minds and open doors approach to be abused and to include the non-orthodox we have invited the battles over sexual ethics. If a pastor or teacher searches out the original intent of the Biblical authors and humbles themselves to it they will avoid false teachings and avoid a troublesome sexual ethic. In other words, if we make the non-orthodox so uncomfortable that they leave we will save the Church much pain in the area of sexual ethics. We need to expend energy fighting the disease and not the symptoms.

 

The Blessing of the Holy Spirit

We need the blessing of the Holy Spirit if we are to have a future. The UMC has many churches which are deeply blessed by the Holy Spirit. The Wind has blown and these churches are growing in numbers and depth. Yet it is impossible to say that the Holy Spirit has blessed our denomination as a whole in the last 50 years. Our numbers continue to decrease even as the population increases. Our impact on society continues to wane. We are not enjoying the blessings of the Holy Spirit.

This should not be a surprise to us. We have allowed Christ to be diminished. If we have tolerated a denial of the second part of the Trinity as fully God why would the third part of the Trinity wish to bless us? There is unity in the Godhead. If we offend one part of the Holy Trinity we have offended all three. Without Christological purity in the UMC we will not see an outpouring of the Spirit upon our movement as a whole. Without the Holy Spirit we are doomed to become a paragraph in the history books.

 

Asking the Hard Questions

Here are a few simple questions we can use to identify the non-orthodox within the UMC and thereby challenge them at every opportunity. Consider them to be discussion starters:

Is Jesus a great teacher or something more? Tell me about the basic nature of Christ and how you interpret John 1:14.

Is Jesus the only way to salvation or one of many paths? Tell me how you interpret the second half of John 14:6 where Jesus says, "No one comes to the Father except by me."

When we read the Scriptures, should we be concerned about the original intent of the authors? Do Paulís canonized works in the New Testament give us Godís ideals for marriage and sexual ethics or should Paul be tossed out?

Was Jesus born of a virgin? If not, what does this say about the nature of Christ? Is the Father Almighty Jesusí father or adopted father?

How do you understand the resurrection of Jesus? Did it occur in history?

The Council of Nicea in 325 AD stated that Jesus is, "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father." Do you agree?

When the non-orthodox answer these questions they can be like dancing politicians. We will need to come together as an orthodox people and study the variety of their responses and know what is and is not allowable under orthodox theology. We want to be as open minded as possible but not allow false teaching to be taught from our churchís pulpits. To do the job we need to be fully prepared defenders of the faith. This will require academic preparation on our part.

With these questions we can make the non-orthodox uncomfortable and unwelcome in our movement instead of the them making us feel uncomfortable. Here are a few ways to use the six questions above:

  • When it is time for a pastoral change we can ask the PPR or SPRC committee of our local church to write a letter to the DS and Bishop requesting that these questions be asked of any potential appointee to our church. Let the cabinet know that you expect an orthodox pastor to be appointed to your church and that your church takes these basic tenets of the faith seriously.
     
  • Have your lay leaders engage in a letter writing campaign to every member of your district committee on ordained ministry and every member of the conference board of ordained ministry. They are the gatekeepers for new pastors coming into the conference. Request that they ask these questions of every candidate for the ministry. These men and women will read these letters. They will take them even more seriously if they receive 20 letters from across the conference. These gatekeepers can keep the non-orthdox from entering the pastoral ministry. They need our encouragement to take false teachings seriously.

Tell your DS that you would like to serve on the district committee on ordained ministry and the conference board of ordained ministry. The worst he or she can say is no. Prepare yourself well if you are chosen.

If your district is set to receive a new DS this year, write to the Bishop with these six questions and ask that an orthodox DS be sent.

We have hoped for the best for too long. We have put up with sexual ethics debates in the church when the real issues are Christological and Canonical. If we make the non-orthodox so uncomfortable that they leave we will no longer have to battle, in front of the national media, on issues which no true Christian feels should be debated. The Confessing Movement is right in saying the true issues are Christological. Where we have failed is in making the other side uncomfortable.

We must be careful in declaring others to be outside of orthodox belief. We donít want a repeat of McCarthyism or the Spanish Inquisition. Many younger pastors or those with limited training are simply confused. When the 13 official UM seminaries married themselves to the academy 80 years ago the value of academic freedom came into the church. Inherent in the academic system is the desire for debate. The idea is that our seminary students will only be truly prepared if one orthodox professor speaks into their right ear while one non-orthodox professor speaks into their left.

All this has done to many graduates is left them confused. Be careful not to have an unnecessary confrontation with a pastor or layperson when they may simply need time to see the truth, read St. John anew and read the Creeds of the church one more time. The confused will leave false teachings behind if we are prepared defenders of the faith, take time to mentor them and can show them the way and the truth and the life.

Only hardcore teachers of false doctrine should have their teachings confronted at every turn. Only they should be made to feel uncomfortable. If we are said to be ungracious then Paul was ungracious in condemning false teachers. Making them defend themselves in the church until they are uncomfortable and leave is not ungracious. It is seeking after purity.

Do we dare to believe that after 20 centuries of the church fighting for orthodoxy that our generation does not have to rise up as Jesus, Paul, Athanasius, Augustine and Luther have? This is simply part of being a Christian. If we reject this responsibility then we have separated ourselves from church history and are not part of the True Church. If we fail in this responsibility we deserve to fade into history. Making the non-orthodox uncomfortable is part and parcel of our calling as Christians.

For 50 years we have had one wild party in our church. At points it has been an illicit party. The kitchen is now filled with dirty dishes that represent confused and non-orthodox pastors. These dishes are of great value as they belonged to great grandma and are good china, created by God. Handle them with love and care.

It is our job to enter into the kitchen even though the job looks overwhelming. We can stay in another room and forget all about the kitchen but that just wonít do. We bravely enter the kitchen and run warm soapy water as we prepare ourselves for the cleanup our church has in front of it. We pick up a dish, examine it and slide it into the cleansing water. With care, gentleness and persuasion the dish comes clean. It is of great value and can now be used again. A few of the dishes are not only dirty. They are cracked. They represent non-orthodox pastors who refuse to return to orthodoxy. While the dish was useful at one time it must now be set aside. Only then can our kitchen prepare good food, the Word of God, on clean plates, so the church may eat and grow strong again.

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Dan White is a member of Big Bend UMC in Riverview, FL, teaches in the church and is a Real Estate Broker. He has served as a missionary for 15 years. His e-mail address is DanWhite4@verizon.net

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