Why The United Methodist Church Should NOT Split

“43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)

My friend in seminary, The Rev. John Plummer, used to call me a “fence sitter.” John was more conservative theologically and I was more liberal. But, I rarely expressed my views strongly. And often, I would try to find what I could live with in opposing views. John used to say to me, “Sometime, Shitama, you’re going to have to take a stand.”

I know The Rev. Plummer is correct.

But, I’ve also learned that there is something about being in the middle that is valuable.

Don’t get me wrong. I have VERY strong opinions. And they are seldom middle of the road. Ask my family or the people that work with me.

I have strong opinions on the big issues of the day, especially the ones that divide us. I don’t usually express myself on those. It’s partly to avoid conflict, but it’s mostly to try to find the spark.

What do I mean by that?

In Paul Scott Wilson’s book, Imagination of the Heart, he shows that the power of the sermon is in finding the spark between opposites. He likens it to electricity where you have two opposite poles, positive and negative. If you hold two oppositely charged wires close enough to each other, but not touching, there is a spark created in the gap. He says that’s the power in preaching.

Wilson says that there are two pairs of opposites that are the foundation of scripture: Law & Gospel and Judgment & Grace. Law and judgment are similar, as are gospel and grace.

If you have one side of the pair there is no spark.

If all you ever talk about is law and judgment, you are beating people over the head with the Bible and just making them feel bad.

If all you ever talk about is gospel and grace, you are making people feel good, but not calling them to accountability to any standard.

Wilson’s genius is in understanding that you need both poles to create the spark. It’s in the tension that energy is created.

For example, when the standard is to love your enemies (law), it feels nearly impossible to achieve. In fact, Matthew 5:48 tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. Who can do that? If that’s all there is, I feel like I’m just letting God down. But when I couple that with the grace of God, which can enable me to love my enemy, there is a spark of inspiration. When, by the grace of God, it actually happens in my life, the spark ignites a fire in my soul.

So, I’m going to jump down off the fence for a minute.

I believe my denomination, The United Methodist Church, should change its stance to allow the ordination of LGBTQ persons and to allow all marriages to be celebrated in our churches.

That being said, since I am ordained, I have covenanted to uphold current church law, which I will do. If I decide to disobey church law I will do so on principle and will be prepared to turn in my ordination orders, if required. I’m not saying this is what I will do. I’m just saying that from an integrity standpoint, I either agree to uphold the covenant of my ordination or I must be willing to give that ordination up.

Now, I’ll start climbing back up the fence.

I believe The United Methodist Church must find a way for us to live together, allowing each annual conference to determine how it will handle ordination and each church to determine how it will handle weddings.

This would make a lot of people unhappy. But I believe this issue is bigger than human sexuality, justice, holiness and our own denomination.

I believe it is an opportunity to make a statement about the power of God to unite us as Christians, despite our differences.

Some of my closest friends are at the opposite end of the political and theological spectrum than I am. I have many clergy colleagues who also fit this category. Yet, we show respect and yes, Christian love, for each other. We put our differences aside because our common bond as Jesus followers is stronger than any of our differences. That bond enables us to do ministry together. To reach out to the least, the last and the lost. We pray together and serve together.

The United Methodist Church does that right now.

The impact of ministries such as Volunteers in Mission, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Imagine No Malaria are significant because we work together. What we call in UM speak, our connectional nature, enables us to do more together than we could apart.

These are just a few examples. Another is the ministry I serve. We have nearly 200 UM camps and retreats across the US because of our work together. Another example is Africa University. Founded by The UMC, it has produced over 4000 graduates who are addressing needs such as sustainable agriculture, disease prevention and ethical governance. The examples of our connectional work are too numerous to list all of them here. I think you get the point.

If The UMC splits, as many predict, our common work will suffer. Many would say that the two or more resulting denominations can still support these same ministries. But, do you believe they can do so as effectively when each has its own administrative structure? I don’t.

More importantly, if our denomination splits, it will be a spiritual failure.

We will have let our human condition get in the way of the power of God to unite. We will be just one more casualty in the culture wars and one more schism in the history of the church. And each side can stand tall, knowing that they stuck to their principles.

To me, this does not feel like God’s way.

You see, I believe that somewhere between the principled stands of each side is a place to live together that is grounded in the love and grace of Jesus.

It enables us to see that living and serving together, despite our differences, is the biggest witness to the power of God in this world. To me, that is the spark that can ignite the flame of God’s spirit in our lives and in our United Methodist Church. I am praying we can find a “way forward.”

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15 Replies to “Why The United Methodist Church Should NOT Split”

  1. Very insightful article, Jack. You make me almost agree with you. I’m proud of the way you’ve addressed the situation in our denomination in such a even-handed, non-offensive manner, and for a brief moment, came down off that fence!

    1. Thanks, John. That means a lot, coming from you. You and I both know that our common bond in Jesus is stronger than our differences. I’m not unrealistic. I realize that in a denomination as large as ours, it is not likely we will stay together. It just doesn’t feel right to me. We shall see, but regardless, God’s purposes will be fulfilled, with or without us. Blessings!

  2. Jack,
    The church is at its best when it helps people who need support and community find it, and when it works to better the plight of folks in need…what you call “connectional work.” The church never seems to be in conflict about doing those “good works,” even though I’m sure someone somewhere could find conflicting scriptural references about “judgment” and “righteousness” (or other biblical terms and conditions) that might lead them to conclude that certain people aren’t worthy of their efforts. It all depends on how one reads and interprets small portions of scripture. However, the church spends HUGE amounts of time and energy worrying about, debating, and trying to limit leadership positions based on sexual preferences and conduct, as a result of finely-tuned interpretations of tiny portions of the Bible. In other words, churches will always find the poor and hungry worthy of respect and attention, but will perpetually debate about respecting and attending to gay folks, regardless of potentially conflicting readings of certain Bible verses about both issues. Having faith, and being capable of leading others in spiritual lives, has nothing to do with sexual preferences, and it is as simple as that to me. Of course, this infatuation with sex in the church is centuries old, and it will always be so. The possibility for multitudinous interpretations of scripture will always keep that “spark” going!

    1. You hit it on the head, Rob. Jodi said the same thing yesterday. “The church spends too much energy on sex.” I respect Christians who believe our current church law is correct, but still love and minister to every person, regardless of sexual orientation or identity. I hope and pray that they would respect for that some of us, if our current stand remains the same, we believe it still undermines any mention or action that says all people are of equal worth. The two sides are irreconcilable unless we agree to live together and allow annual conferences and churches to choose as their consciences guide. I am praying this will be the case, but am not necessarily hopeful. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Your thoughts on why the UM Church should not split painted a picture in my mind of a spark creating a light for the path of UM on both sides of this delima to walk constructively and creatively together in the holy name God. Thanks….

    1. Nicely said, Don. I respect those who, out of conscience, believe that our current law is correct. And, I get that for many, any change in the law, like you or I suggest, would be considering giving in. I am praying that enough people will see the power in God to hold us together and to understand what a witness that would be. Thanks, Don!

  4. A simple solution might be to disciplinarily allow individual UM members and/or churches to legally do what we are already doing by believing and acting on these issues. It is already at least in practical everyday working ways happening in Reconciling Ministry Network Churches and
    and those who are not. Why do we all have to be alike? Between the our differences a spark may be created that may help us see the light on a path on which we may all walk with God and one another’s understanding, acceptance and
    appreciation in the holy name
    of Jesus.

  5. Well said, Jack. I’ve been a Methodist all my life. If the church splits, I don’t know what I will do. I read the Bible with the spirit of the text – love others, God’s grace is for everyone, God is in charge, not literally all the time – the Bible says this is wrong. I’m a traditionalist. I don’t like the praise services and music, but if that works for you I’m fine with that. If the Church were to split, I’d be in a quandary. I think it might be the praise vs the traditional.

    By the way, Jack, I agree wholeheartedly with your position.

    When my pastor has been asked this question, he starts off by saying he believes we are called to love and have compassion for others, but this is the stand the UM church takes. Like you, my pastor abides by the church law.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Joyce. I am reminded that humility is essential here. I know what I believe, but I need to be able to respect that others believe differently. I think your pastor is modeling this. There are many ways that we can divide. Over worship style, human sexuality issues, issues of race and equality. I just believe that God’s grace could enable us to live and serve together if we were open to it.

  6. Jack, I get confused with this. Why does it come down to the marriage issue. Does it take the approval of marrying everyone in the church to follow the laws of what God has written for us. I may be too superficial in the issue to understanding the full impact on the church. I appreciate your thoughts and thank you creating sparks; the sparks definitely help us to come together and talk. Change does not bother me; the normalization of trends that lead young people to follow the secular vs the word of God that bothers me. Thanks for listening.

    1. Thanks, Sue. The main problem is that faithful Christians disagree on the definition of marriage. So it’s now playing itself out in the church. This is not a problem for independent churches, as they can choose how they want to handle it. However, in a denomination as large as ours, there are people all across the spectrum. I respect your position and those Christians who agree with it. And this is the status quo. The problem comes when there are those who don’t agree with the status quo and want to see change. If church law doesn’t change, then those who disagree with it have the option to leave or to disobey. Right now there is quite a bit of civil disobedience. In response, the Bishop’s Commission on a Way Forward has been formed to see if there is a way we can live together. I am not hopeful. My sense is that if church law is changed to allow both churches with traditional values and those with progressive values, then conservative churches will leave the denomination. If church law doesn’t change, there will likely be more civil disobedience. The point of my post is that I believe that a schism in our church is more the result of human will, than God’s will. I believe God wants us to find a way to live together. I may be wrong about this, but that is what my heart tells me. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Interesting thoughts, Jack. As one who holds a traditional position, I see the “spark” as being between upholding the scriptural ideal of our sexual relationships belonging only within the bond of heterosexual monogamous marriage and God’s grace to enable that (and to forgive us when we fail), helping us move toward greater maturity/perfection. I think it is not helpful to think of finding a “spark” between those who believe same-sex relations are a sin and those who believe they are a good gift of God. The only sparks that fly from that dichotomy are the conflicts that we see inherent in our divided denomination.

    I can certainly affirm the unity that we have as fellow Christians or “Christ-followers.” But that is the kind of unity I have with Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Catholics. It is not sufficient unity to hold together a denomination. That requires greater agreement. Otherwise, we disintegrate into a network of independent congregations and conferences.

    1. Thanks for sharing, Tom. You may be correct about this. As I have said in my post. I would be sad about this. Whatever happens, I hope and pray that we will be able to show respect and grace for those with whom we disagree. I heard someone say we can disagree without being disagreeable. This may not be enough to hold The UMC together but may be all we can do. Blessings to you.

  8. Jack, I so appreciate your clear view of the issue, your logical thinking and your Christ-like heart to come to your conclusion.

    I want to embrace your conclusion.

    The issue for me that makes it difficult to embrace is this, maybe you can help me.

    That which divides us is a matter of scripture; not of understanding, logic or wanting the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We all agree on it.

    No one in this ongoing debate deals with Scripture. Where does the Bible state in support of marriage and ordination of Gays as clearly as it condemns it?

    Help me understand. I really want to know.

    Love and respect for each other is a given. We should all demonstrate this. However, the Bible emphasises the sanctity of marriage and the high qualifications of the ordained. Can we approve what appears the Bible clearly condemns?

    Final end, it doesn’t matter what you and I or anyone else believes. The final authority is the Word of God. At least I assume we all still believe that.

    So is there Scripture that can bring us together that supports God blessing a Gay marriage and the ordination of practicing Gays?

    I’ve friends who are gays. Also had and have gays in my churches. They are more than welcomed. I love them and respect them. I also have heterosexuals in my churches over the years that were and are living with each other and not married. For crying out loud, I’m in the church. I have come out of valagrant sins of my past.

    Issue is not the people and how we accept them. We all agree to love, respect and welcome them.

    The wall to overcome is our understanding of scripture. Show in scripture where God encourages the marriage of Gays and the ordination of those who are practicing Gays.

    Support your view with Scripture and I am arm in arm with you. Thanks Jack. I love your heart, logic and view.

    Thank you Brother.

    1. Thanks for sharing, David. You are correct in saying that it comes down to scripture and this is where the fundamental disagreement lies. I don’t expect that we will agree on this either. Those of us who support changing our polity view that the truth in scripture has to be applied in context or it does not have meaning. So, while Paul forbid women from speaking in church, we no longer forbid them. While scripture was once used to support the use of slavery, we no longer use in this way. I will only speak for myself on this last part, the Jesus I have gotten to know in the gospels is a God of grace. I believe that he was clear about the scripture, it comes down to love of God and neighbor. The Jesus I see in scripture would affirm a loving, committed relationship as a means of grace.

      As I have said, I do not expect you to agree with me nor do I desire a debate. I don’t believe it will change any minds. I am reminded that in his second inaugural address Abraham Lincoln cautioned that all have humility, as each side invoked the same God and the same bible, neither knowing for certain. Which goes back to my original question, can we stay together, even if we interpret scripture differently? We have a broad range of interpretations in The UMC on scriptural issues such as Creation and Atonement and that has not divided us. I fear it is not likely we will stay together. But I am praying for a miracle of God. Blessings to you, David.

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