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 CrowdWhile 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 f