Updated: Jan 26, 2020
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By Byron Bufkin
The responses to the “Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation” have been wide and varied, but a consistent concern among Traditionalists is a variation of the question, “Why are we the ones leaving?” Many of us see great unfairness in the mandate that a new Traditionalist denomination will be formed. After all, the progressives are the ones openly defying the Book of Discipline by their acts of disobedience. We question the bishops who openly stated they would not enforce our Discipline regarding these violations, as well as their public proclamations that they would arbitrarily refuse to accept certain complaints. Our frustration only grew as we heard repeated refusals to uphold the same Book of Discipline granting them authority to maintain order. We fought against bitterness and disillusionment within our congregations, stemming from episcopal unwillingness to hold accountable those in open rebellion.
At the root of the Traditionalist objection is our firm belief in the authority of Scripture. Although our secular culture considers our stance to be impolite, uncivil, and politically incorrect, many Traditionalists nonetheless challenge the assertion that LGBTQIA+ people have been harmed by our historic denominational position on human sexuality. The simple fact is that the standards of our Book of Discipline on sexual righteousness have not changed; why would someone vow to uphold these standards (either through ordination or in membership) if they so vehemently opposed them? The repeated sentiment we have feared openly asking has always been, “If you disagree with our doctrine and dogma, then why affiliate, why stay? Why not leave if you disagree with the interpretation of Scripture being taken by the greater church?”
Clearly we are a community in conflict, and resolution is critically necessary. Jesus said, “If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). If we continue the cycle of “winner take all” legislation like we saw at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference, we will surely tear ourselves asunder as we rip each other apart. Therefore I would offer my whole-hearted support of this protocol despite a myriad of concerns, misgivings, and objections.
These concerns are the reason why the reaction of many Traditionalists to the protocol is understandable. Since we agree with the historic teaching and tradition of the church on sexual purity, and since we have tried to be open-minded and generous of spirit, we therefore maintain that we should have the right to keep the name, logo, and structure of the United Methodist Church. Many of us are the same Traditionalists upset over efforts we perceive as duplicitous or manipulative by “the other side.” But let’s be honest with ourselves: for decades we have objected quietly if we have raised our concerns at all. Heaven forbid that we should be offensive, or appear mean-spirited and inflexible.
For a moment, therefore, please set aside any consideration of “what should be,” “what’s right,” or “what’s fair.” Please also set aside differences of opinion on the appropriate course of action, and let’s also leave the debate of, “If I would have been in that meeting, things would be different!”
More importantly than defending our rights or getting our way, what ministry are we seeking to advance? If the conflict consuming the United Methodist Church is truly rooted in a difference of theology (i.e., interpretation and authority of Scripture, even beyond a denominational rule-book), then shouldn’t our response to conflict reflect our theological foundation?
So let’s get down to brass tacks: what is Christ’s instruction in responding to adversity and conflict? What do the Scriptures we are so adamant about obeying say about the rights we feel have been trampled?
Many ministers have taught from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, and within those lessons they have commonly explored the struggle we all face to follow Christ’s directives. Among the most difficult concepts is Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11). He is speaking to a people who live under occupation of the Roman Empire and are considered an inferior race, yet these words ring true for all of us. Regardless of our skin color, nationality, or any other segregating factor, nobody wants to be maligned without reason. Even if we deserve to have our actions called out, we still don’t enjoy the process of righteous accountability.
Jesus, however, puts our human motivations in a new context. If we truly believe we are acting from dedication to Christ and His kingdom, we shouldn’t be surprised that our perspective – let alone our stance on Scripture – will not be respected. Jesus Himself told us this would be the case in John 16:2, “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.”
Many Traditionalists interpret the protocol as being “put out” of our church, and so we become indignant and act out of anger. But before we “rejoice in our sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13) by assuming a form of smug self-satisfaction, viewing ourselves as the injured party, our Lord also said,
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. (Matthew 5:39-41)
This call of self-sacrifice reaches beyond the love we feel for family and those we consider friends: we are called by Christ beyond our willingness to suffer just in service for those we cherish. Quite to the contrary, Jesus calls us to consider those who stand against us with greater love,
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:35-36)
Our Lord again hits us squarely between the eyes with a difficult form of love that we don’t naturally want to follow. Even as children, we learn to expect equal and fair treatment. (For example, my wife had to count how many sprinkles went on each of our children’s cupcake.) And if someone abused this expectation, we want punishment for the offending party and “our pound of flesh.” (Or at least another cupcake.) Knowing this sentiment, Jesus nonetheless calls us to a greater form of maturity by embracing grace and mercy. He taught us this lesson by dying to forgive each of our sins when we were still His enemies: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This is the nature of Christian love that we must exemplify even now. As Paul explained to the church in Ephesus, Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God… For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light… and find out what pleases the Lord. (Ephesians 5:1-10)
To be continued…