A Response to Steve West’s article, ‘Why I’m not leaving the United Methodist Church’
by Paul Lawler
Feb. 21 2020
On January 25th, a large gathering of United Methodist lay-people and clergy took place in the Birmingham area at Clearbranch United Methodist. The theme of the day was, Why the Best Days of Methodism are Ahead of Us! The purpose of the gathering was to inspire hope for the future of a new Methodist movement. The day featured guest speaker, Chris Ritter, and delegation members from multiple Annual Conferences from around the southeast. You can watch the video of the gathering at this link. Here is the United Methodist News Service article on the gathering: Traditionalists’ Event Draws Big Crowd. While the gathering did involve many who are in leadership in the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the gathering at Clearbranch was not a WCA event. In addition, the 60 pastors Steve refers to in his article are not all a part of the WCA. The gathering at Clearbranch was made up of traditionally orthodox lay-people and clergy, which transcends the constituency of the WCA.
While the event drew many pastors together, the critical masses of attendees were lay-persons from numerous United Methodist Churches. Following the event, some pastors posted their impressions of the gathering. Apparently, when approximately 1,000 United Methodists gather to consider the next steps, in light of the possible passage of the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation, the movement will not be without its critics. Therefore, this article is provided to correct misinformation being propagated.
Rev. Steve West wrote a recent article. Steve is the pastor of Arab First United Methodist Church in Arab, Alabama. Steve’s article was published by Al.com at Steve’s request and also by United Methodist News Service, along with it being re-posted by several blog sites around the country. You can read his article here. Steve is a colleague in ministry, and we have had good interactions with him over the years.
While we love and appreciate Steve as a colleague, there are some things shared in his article that are misleading. We simply want to give greater clarity to many of the things he stated or implied:
Here are 9 Points of Clarification we wish to Share in Response to Steve West’s Article:
1. The Statement regarding the current human sexuality debate in the United Methodist Church.
Steve states in his article, “The debate is incorrectly framed as being about Biblical authority when it is really about culture wars.”
For the author to declare the debate in the United Methodist Church, “is really about culture wars” reflects a deep misrepresentation of the truth. While all of us are aware of the tensions in our culture regarding numerous issues, our debate and division in the
United Methodist Church is not rooted in culture but in theology (And a failure of governance, which will be addressed later). A good working definition of theology is simply this: What we believe as the Church and why; or, as Webster put it, “the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.”
United Methodist theologian after theologian after theologian have all declared a clear, biblically rooted understanding of human sexuality, which includes admonitions to not redefine the covenant of Christian marriage. Thus, our debate is, in fact, rooted in theology and biblical authority, not culture.
There is no biblical text which supports the redefining of marriage as being between two men or two women. A revisionist perspective on human sexuality is a value of western culture, and not reflected in the Scriptures, 2,000 years of Christian tradition, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or through the majority of Christians around the world. We would submit that we are not the ones taking our cue from the culture, but those who wish to enable or support changing the definition of Christian marriage in the church are.
2. The Statement made regarding potentially joining the new Methodist denomination:
“I feel it would disregard the vows I made at ordination. I promised I would be faithful to the UMC and uphold its discipline. I have done so even if others haven’t…I feel leaving the UMC would be hypocritical…”
We understand the author is speaking for himself, but we must remember the author is writing this piece in the context of “a response to the Clearbranch meeting,” as described by Greg Garrison of Al.com. The implied inferences need to be addressed.
The crisis in the United Methodist Church is not just theological, but constitutional. Our present crisis is rooted in the failure of Bishops and leaders who have not upheld the vows they made at their ordination. This has led to chaos in the governance of the United Methodist Church. If there had been no crises of governance, we would not be where we are today.
In the words of United Methodist theologian, Dr. David Watson, who writes regarding Steve’s article via Twitter, “Like so many commentaries on the United Methodist Church, the article misrepresents the reason for division. It is not disagreement. It is that we have abandoned our mechanisms for resolving disagreement. Our governance has failed, and it is no longer reparable.”
As clergy, we all took vows to uphold the United Methodist Book of Discipline. If the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace through Separation passes at General Conference 2020, the denominational iteration known as the United Methodist Church will vote to redefine marriage and officially ordain same-sex partnered clergy. Therefore, for Christians whose convictions will not allow us to redefine marriage, it would be hypocritical for clergy to take a vow to serve in a denomination that redefines marriage when our conscience cannot support it. Where you feel, “leaving the UMC would be hypocritical,” we feel that if we stayed with the present iteration of the UMC, that we would be hypocritical. We cannot take a vow to uphold an ecclesiology that endorses patterns that we believe are in direct conflict with God’s will for humanity, as expressed through Scripture. You are okay being in a denomination that does choose to do so, and that is why you can stay and not be a hypocrite. We feel this point needed to be expressed with a greater degree of clarity for persons who have read your article.
3. The Statements:“I am centrist” and “I am traditional and orthodox.”
The author stakes out the claim that he is a theological “centrist,” and then later in the article, stakes out the claim that theologically he is “traditionally orthodox.”
It is worth noting that centrist and progressives, at times, work with multiple sets of definitions of terms. We need to clarify our definitions, lest we confuse lay-persons or even clergy in the UMC. We would like to go on record with the set of definitions we are utilizing.
Theological Progressive: “Progressive Christianityis a ‘post-liberal movement’ within Christianity ‘that seeks to reform the faith via the insights of post-modernism and a reclaiming of the truth beyond the verifiable historicity and factuality of the passages in the Bible by affirming the truths within the stories that may not have actually happened.’ Progressive Christianity represents a post-modern theological approach and is not necessarily synonymous with progressive politics. It developed out of the Liberal Christianity of the modern era, which was rooted in enlightenment thinking” (Source: Wikipedia).
Theological Centrist:A person who claims the classic creeds of Christianity, but is willing to be a part of a denomination that redefines Christian marriage. They may or may not be theological universalists or inclusivists, which underpins a lack of emphasis on mobilizing the church to fulfill the Great Commission. You can read one United Methodist theologian’s concerns regarding Pastors who become or are, theological centrist here
Theologically Traditionally Orthodox: a person who holds to the classic definitions of Christianity, the exclusive claims of Christ regarding salvation, as well as Christian marriage being defined as being between one man and one woman.
4. The use of these words or phrases: The use of incendiary language through words or phrases like: “the Schism being planned,” “fundamentalist,” “southern secessionism,” and “This has evolved past social issues to schism.”
We would like to ask you, as well as others, to dial down the use of incendiary language.
The gathering at Clearbranch was not schismatic.The United Methodist Church, which you expressed you would be faithful to through your vows, has officially engaged in the process of placing legislation before the 2020 General Conference for the creation of multiple expressions of Methodism. The Protocol for Separation has been worked on by Bishops and leaders from a wide variety of constituencies within United Methodism. In other words, consideration of a new Methodist movement is properly before the church according to her polity, which we all vowed to uphold. We are working within that framework. When using phrases like “the Schism being planned,”it is misleading and just plain wrong. The gathering of Clearbranch was rooted in seeking to love and shepherd people well as we navigate the change that is potentially before us as a people called Methodists. It was rooted in caring for people in light of change on the horizon.
It was Pastor Chris Ritter who recently appealed to all of us to, “Think Methodist mitosis rather than scandalous schism. Mitosis is cell division that expands life, increases health. Wise division with multiplication in mind is essential gospel practice. Angry ripping (the literal meaning of schism) drains all contestants.”
There is no “schism being planned.” There is; however, a formal plan coming before GC 2020 that may be designed to birth new expressions of Methodism.
We are not fundamentalists. We request that centrist and progressives stop labeling everyone who disagrees with their vision of the church as fundamentalists. Please take the time to read this link.
The use of the term “southern secessionism.”We are a global church. Consider the voices of our sisters and brothers in Africa. Consider United Methodist leaders serving in Colorado or Ohio or New Jersey who express that they cannot live in a church held captive by constitutional chaos and are determined to redefine Christian marriage. We believe the use of the phrase “southern secessionism” is a poor attempt to manipulate by playing off populist stereotypes. The phrase carries negative connotations from a dark period in U.S. history. Did you mean to impugn the character of approximately one thousand of your United Methodist sisters and brothers who gathered at Clearbranch in this way? Is this how you feel toward Catholics, and the overwhelming majority of Christians around the world whose convictions concerning the definition of marriage remain rooted in the biblical tradition?
You spoke in your article on the importance of grace being expressed toward all people. Are you expressing grace and love toward all people when you call your sisters and brothers in Christ, “schismatic, fundamentalist and southern secessionist”? Do these words reflect what you profess when you say, “Our divided culture needs a witness to love that transcends our differences, not giving in to the prevalent ‘us vs. them’ and ‘either/or’ mentality”?
Our denomination’s legislation related to all of this is titled, Protocol of Reconciliation & Gracethrough Separation. Let’s dial down the incendiary language and remember to manifest grace toward one another through this process.
5. The Statement: Wesley said that separating “from a body of living Christians with whom we were before united is a grievous breach of the law of love,” and hence it “is only when our love grows cold that we can consider separation.”
You are quoting John Wesley’s sermon, “On Schism.” You quote Wesley accurately where he supports your intended point, but you failed to quote Wesley from the same sermon when Wesley does not support the point you were attempting to make.
John Wesley goes on to say in the same sermon,
“Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other’s doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society.”
Through the work of the protocol, the post-separation UMC plans to make same-sex weddings a rite within her ecclesiology. We believe that serving in a denomination that chooses to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman to include two men or two women, is a grievous sin that violates Scripture. Because of our conviction, it becomes implausible to preach “Repent and believe the gospel” while at the same time taking ordination vows to uphold an ecclesiology that is in direct conflict with the call of repentance that is necessary for faithful proclamation of the gospel. According to the sermon you quoted, Wesley did warn against schism, but he went on in that same sermon and stated there are times when it is right to separate.
6. The Statement:“I believe in grace. Do our churches rebuke people who are divorced and remarried, not allowing them to serve in ministry? I’m not saying we should hold remarried people in judgment, not at all. I’m saying that if we offer grace in one situation addressed in scripture and not in another, it’s clearly not about Biblical authority but about culture wars. I can’t be a part of a new movement that insists LGBTQ people can’t be Christians. I know too many that are.”
The reasoning here is pure conjecture.
Who is considering withholding grace toward anyone? Who is considering withholding grace toward divorced people, LGBTQ people, or remarried people? We are certainly not. All people are, and will continue to be, welcomed into the doors of our churches.
We, too, believe in grace. Grace that forgives. Grace that redeems. Grace that empowers the living of a transformed life through the gospel of Jesus Christ. We offer to all people the invitation, “Repent and believe the gospel” because God’s grace is open to all people.
7. The Statement:“Jesus didn’t even mention the issues that divide us,”
Again, this is misleading. Jesus did speak to the issue of marriage, and He did so more than once. Jesus could have redefined what marriage is in a Roman culture that involved all types of sexual debauchery; but instead of redefining it, He chose to reinforce its definition:
JESUS: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:4-6 (NIV)
Christian marriage, and the deeper reality it signifies, has been defined by God through Scripture, by the red letters of Jesus Christ, and by the apostles. As already noted, United Methodist theologians have written thought- provoking articles on the biblical rooted view of human sexuality.
Concerning our governance and the failure of Bishops and leaders in keeping their ordination vows, Jesus spoke clearly in the Sermon on the Mount about keeping one’s vows (See Matthew 5:33-37).
To suggest that “Jesus didn’t even mention the issues that divide us” is simply misleading.
8. The Statement: “but there’s something else that he most definitely did talk about – our unity, for that’s what Jesus prayed for in John 17.”
We choose to be in unity with the great mass of Christians all over the world who interpret Scripture to be authoritative and agree on traditional definitions of sexual morality and Christian marriage.
Please take the time to read this link: When Unity at All Cost is too Costly.
9. The Statement: “there are so many positive things to be lost by leaving. Together we have created the United Methodist Committee on Relief, the Upper Room, the Walk to Emmaus, the Academy for Spiritual Formation, Africa University, and all sorts of regional treasures like Sumatanga and the Children’s Home.”
If one takes the time to watch the video of the gathering at Clearbranch, we have gone on record in the panel discussion that a new Methodist movement would continue to support United Methodist Committee on Relief(UMCOR); as well as United Methodist Children’s Homes. We are Methodists who remain passionate for involvement in Walk to Emmaus, and the Academy for Spiritual Formation and support mission to our African sisters and brothers. To infer that a new Methodist movement would forsake these things reflects false assumptions and misinformation.
Before we close, we would like to call on centrist and progressive pastors to stop misrepresenting the traditionally orthodox within their own denomination and within their own congregations. Your misrepresentations are disingenuous at best. United Methodist lay-people are educated and smart, and will ultimately discern when less than accurate and incendiary statements are being made. For the record, in a potential new Methodist movement:
We are committed to women being ordained in ministry. This is not unclear, and it is not unknown. Read this link. Read this link. And read this link. Please refrain from continuing a narrative that does not reflect this fact.
We are committed to dynamic life-transforming ministry with every ethnic group.
We are committed to the continuation of the office of Bishops, the authority of Bishops, and the continuation of being a connectional church that fosters accountability. Please refrain from continuing a narrative that does not reflect this fact.
We are committed to revising our apportionment formula to advance greater expressions of mission. Our connectional giving, and the outdated structure some of it supports, can be better utilized for greater expressions of God’s mission outside the walls of the church both locally and globally.
We are committed to lay pastors, their empowerment, and ways to bolster their voice and involvement in the life of the church on all levels.
We are committed to a new day for a people called Methodists! A new day that rekindles the best of our originating impulses by planting new churches in the United States and around the world. A new day of equipping local bodies with the seeds of church revitalization! A new day of seeing life-giving expressions of the captive being set free and the binding up of brokenness that’s pervasive all around us.
We believe the best days of Methodism are ahead of us!
Tim Alexander Jeff Armbrester Steve Baccus Tim Barnes Jake Barrett Kenny Baskins Alan Beasley Keith Beatty Harvey Beck Bart Bowlin Liz Bowlin Charlie Brown Glenn Conner Raul Dominguez-Flores Bridget Dowdy Dee Dowdy Eddie Gooch Tommy Gray Rudy Guess Barry Hallman Randall Ham Todd Henderson Gail Hiett John Hill Lyle Holland Jody Hooven Ron Howard Sam Huffstutler Nicky James John Kearns Tiwirai Kufarimai Mark Lacey Robert Lancaster Paul Lawler Bo Lloyd Mark Mayo Vicki Mann Chris Martin Michael Miller Chris Montgomery Deborah Moon Todd Owen Mark Parris Scott Railey John Ryberg Ricky Smith Vaughn Stafford John Tanner Rusty Tate Blue Vardaman John Verciglio Ben Vernon Ray Weaver Michael Wilder Trav Wilson Lee Witheringhton