Is There “A Way Forward” for the United Methodist Church?

Trevin Wax
Trevin Wax
2014 18 Jun

The United Methodist Church appears to be hurtling toward schism. Traditionalists and progressives are at an impasse regarding the nature and legitimacy of same-sex unions, with the increasingly global Traditionalists winning the battle at the legislative levels and the progressives now defying church regulations.

A Way Forward?

Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 20,000-member Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, has offered “A Way Forward” that would hold the two sides together by allowing churches to disagree with and disobey the UMC’s Book of Discipline. Hamilton hopes to move this discussion away from the General Conference (which meets every four years) and back to the local church. The end result would be a United Methodist Church that maintains an official stance regarding same-sex relationships but allows for dissent among local churches and conferences.

Timothy Tennent Responds

Timothy Tennent is a Wesleyan theologian and the president of Asbury Seminary. I interviewed him last year about how the global church should impact our theology. He’s one of my favorite Wesleyan thinkers and writers.

Dr. Tennent has written a series of blog posts regarding the current state of the United Methodist Church and the likely results of Adam Hamilton’s proposal. First, he sets a tone of brotherly friendship and explains Hamilton’s proposal. Then, Tennent goes to the heart of the issue. The debate over homosexuality, he explains, is merely the tip of the iceberg:

Our problems run far deeper than the current debate over homosexuality. In fact, if the “crisis” over homosexuality were to disappear tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the nature or gravity of the crisis which is engulfing the UMC.

The Nature and Context of the Crisis

What is the nature of the crisis among Methodists? Tennent points to three underlying problems:

  1. “We have experienced a slow decline in our confidence in the authority of Scripture.”
  2. A “muddled” understanding of the gospel message.
  3. “A narrow denominational parochialism which seems to blind leaders to the grand faith of the church of Jesus Christ through the ages and around the world.”

The context for this crisis is epistemological, brought on by postmodern notions of truth. Tennent sees Hamilton’s proposal as unwittingly participating in the same postmodern impulses that have contributed to the crisis in the UMC, with a dash of consumerism thrown in as well.

If the Bible is now read as nothing more than 1st century “perspectives” where nothing can be truly known for certain, and we have no objective revelation from God, then why wouldn’t we expect that this is how the Discipline might be regarded as well? Now, even morality is market driven, commoditized, and, distributed by “supply and demand” through a super majority vote to the church nearest you. What is moral on main street just might not be regarded as moral across town, but, ne’er mind, everyone gets what they demand.

Why We Can’t “Agree to Disagree”

So why can’t United Methodists simply “agree to disagree” on the validity of same-sex relationships? Tennent sees the incompatibility of the two positions as inevitably leading to disunity. Why? Because progressives believe homosexuality is innate to one’s identity.

Once homosexual identity is accepted as integral to one’s basic ontology by progressives, then any compromise between the two groups is immoral. The reason is that once this is accepted as a basic civil right, then it is a matter of justice and equality for all. Thus, they cannot rest until justice is enjoyed by everyone.

Furthermore, Tennent understands that there are bigger issues at stake than recognizing and blessing same-sex marriage. The idea that we can “agree to disagree” assumes that there is only one issue at play here. Rejecting a simplistic analysis and reflecting on the current national conversation on LGBTQIA issues, Tennent concludes:

This is not a discussion about sex or marriage, it is a discussion about the elimination of all gender boundaries and assumptions about gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation. This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body. This debate has enormous implications for historic Christian teaching concerning the body. This, in turn, has even deeper implications for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ and our own bodily resurrection at the end of time.

A Hopeful Future

What are Tennent’s hopes for the future? Sustained and rigorous biblical exegesis, for one. It’s not obedience or disobedience to the UMC policy that matters most; it’s faithfulness to God’s Word. He writes:

I strongly advocate that we insert into this discussion a vigorous discussion concerning the teaching of the New Testament and reasonable guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. Each side is speaking too generically about their “love of Scripture.” We must engage the Bible and the Wesleyan theological tradition with more faithfulness – that is a call to everyone involved.

In his final post, Tennent offers a tentative solution that avoids schism at the global level but firmly separates United Methodists at the local level into two arms: “Confessing Methodists” and “Progressive Methodists.” He concludes:

We cannot keep pretending that our current covenant is holding. It is time for some bold action. Our Wesleyan heritage is too precious to keep traveling down the road of the status quo. If the truth were told, almost all of our churches (on both sides of the divide) have largely relinquished a clear exposition of Wesleyan distinctives. In addition, we have already experienced the “quiet schism” of millions of members who have left our beloved church. It is time for a true Wesleyan renewal to begin in the United Methodist Church. Let us pray, fast and commit ourselves to God and then, in true Wesleyan fashion, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work and, by God’s grace, forge a new future for our great movement.

Let’s Pray for Our Methodist Brothers and Sisters

As evangelicals, we should grieve whenever churches and denominations are divided. Jesus claimed that one of the ways the world will know the Father’s glory is through His people’s unity. Too often, we give lip service to unity while justifying schism.

At the same time, true and lasting unity must be based in the truth of God’s Word. Unity is impossible when the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture is denied.

The United Methodist Church is divided today over a number of issues, many of which go to the heart of our faith. We have Wesleyan brothers and sisters seeking to be faithful to the gospel in an increasingly difficult situation. Let’s pray that Wesley’s passionate love for Jesus and devotion to God’s Word would once again flood the churches of his theological descendants.