Jeff Greenway July 27, 2021
This article is part of our Counterpoint series, in which Firebrand explores opposing viewpoints on theological topics. For a different view of the issues surrounding the United Methodist Church and separation, see Paul T. Stallsworth’s article, “Reformation Not Separation: An Argument for Keeping the UMC Together.” I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. Early in the story, the good wizard, Gandalf, explains the history of the Ring to the young hobbit, Frodo Baggins. This mystical ring has been lost to the world of men for centuries, until it’s found by Gollum—whose entire appearance was transformed by the ugliness that comes with trying to hold on to power (which the Ring symbolizes). Finding the Ring also corresponds with the rise of the dark wizard, Sauron—and the advance of evil on Middle Earth. As he comes to grips with the weight of this moment in time, Frodo—the most unlikely of heroes—laments: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Frodo knows something he can’t not know, and feels the weight of responsibility to do something. The good wizard Gandalf speaks a word of wisdom in response to Frodo and to us: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I can totally relate. I wish this season in the life of the United Methodist Church hadn’t happened in our time. Methodism is the spiritual root out of which my family’s heritage of faith has grown, and I’m a second generation United Methodist clergyperson. I love the church, but every act of ecclesial disobedience, every incidence of the ignoring of our common covenant, and every provocative act by those in authority has helped me realize this isn’t my father’s United Methodist Church. Nor is it the covenant community into which I was ordained. We all have to decide what to do with the time that’s given for us. During the last several years, I’ve decided to use my time to pastor the local church I serve and to be actively engaged in praying, dreaming and planning for a new expression of Wesleyan Methodism to be birthed out of our denomination.
The timing of this article comes when some institutionalist United Methodists are trying to make the appeal that our differences are not significant enough to merit separation, advocating that we’re better together, and are making promises that no one will have to compromise their core beliefs or principles in the utopic future they envision. I disagree. I believe we need to separate. We are no longer better together. I have personal experience confirming that my deeply held beliefs and convictions aren’t welcome in what will become the post-separation United Methodist Church. It’s time.
There are plenty of voices who’ve shared their reasons for staying together. I write to share six reasons why I’m in favor of amicable separation—particularly along the lines outlined in the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.
First, we’re no longer governable. The lack of fidelity to our agreed upon system of governance and polity has led us to a constitutional crisis. Those charged with leading the church and holding us accountable aren’t able to hold one another accountable. The move toward regionalization of belief and practice has placed us in a time like the book of Judges where “everyone does what’s wise in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25)—resulting in broken trust and covenant. I write as a veteran of many General Conferences who has learned that it doesn’t matter how many times the General Conference acts to affirm or attempt to hold us accountable to our covenants, we’re ungovernable as long as the bishops act as a law unto themselves. Our system is broken and ungovernable.
Second, we have a language problem. I’m not talking about the need to translate our faith into the official languages of the United Methodist Church. I’m talking about the fact that the words we use to express who we are and what we believe in the church don’t mean the same thing to everyone using them. For the last several years I’ve contended that the challenge facing us is that we use the same words, cite the same scriptures, quote the same Wesley sermons, and pledge fidelity to the same Book of Discipline, but because we don’t have a common understanding of what the words mean, we’re living entirely different expressions of the faith. It’s increasingly difficult to find common language upon which to agree, and as a result, we don’t understand each other.
Third, we have very different theologies. This is, in part, because of our language problem. Many in the United Methodist world believe we’re divided by human sexuality. I disagree. Human sexuality is only the presenting symptom. The real cause of our division is rooted in fundamental differences in some of the core doctrines of the church. For example:
We disagree on the nature, role and authority of Scripture, and our differing approaches to interpretation begin and end in entirely different places. Some of us believe the Bible is the word of God. Others contend it contains the word of God. Some believe the canon is closed. Others believe the canon is open and “new revelation” takes precedence over old. Some believe the entire Bible is true and authoritative. Others believe it can be divided into three categories (“buckets”) and portions can be dismissed as not authoritative. Some believe our experience is to be subject to Scripture. Others believe our experience is more important than and supersedes Scripture.
We disagree on the nature, role and authority of Jesus. Some believe in the incarnation, virgin birth, physical death and bodily resurrection of Jesus as explained in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and some don’t and cross their fingers during examination and ordination. Friends, either Jesus is who He said He is, and did everything He said He would do—or we really have nothing life-changing to offer the world.
We disagree on the nature of sin and its needed atonement. Some believe sin is personal, that it separates us from a relationship with God, needs to be atoned for, and is forgiven when we place our faith in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To quote my friend, Shane Bishop, “Sin will beg to be tolerated, ask to be accepted and then demand to be celebrated. It’s what sin does.” Others don’t want to hear about or minimize personal sin. Others believe human beings are inherently good, and sin is corrected solely through acts of justice and mercy. Modern Methodists have disconnected two things that Wesley held in tension: the absolute need for a saving relationship with Jesus and the very outgrowth of that relationship—changed lives that then change communities and cultures.
We disagree on the meaning of justification or salvation. Some of us believe in the absolute necessity of Wesley’s teaching on the Way of Salvation including conviction, repentance, justification, conversion, new birth, adoption and assurance of salvation on a personal basis. We must be born again. Others view salvation as universal and see no real need to call others to repentance and salvation. Salvation is often seen as a civil right rather than as a gift given in response to grace.
We disagree on the ongoing work of sanctification or Christian perfection. Some see sanctification as the work of the Holy Spirit that continues saving us from sin and delivering us into new life. We’re not only saved from the penalty of our sin, we can also be delivered from its power and control over our lives. Others resist the continuing work of the Spirit pointing out the residue of sin and its effect in our lives, and shun or deny the need to be what Wesley called being “saved to the uttermost.”
These differing theological perspectives once resided happily under the covering of “big tent” Methodism, but the lack of a theological center, and the continued, strident moving of the stakes of the progressive side of the tent toward ideologies that I dare to say are not even Christian, have torn the fabric of the “big tent.” Theologically, we’re coming apart at the seams.
Fourth, we really don’t want to be in the same church. We say we do, but because of our language problems and deep theological differences, we often behave badly toward those who oppose us. When power dynamics go unchecked, the fact that we don’t really trust or want to be in the same church with each other becomes clearer. There are regions in the United Methodist Church that haven’t had any orthodox leadership in decades—if ever. (The same could be said by someone who is progressive, but this is not their article!) The places that are more theologically diverse have seen the civility of the past disappear over the last decade. Recent denominational headlines about provocative changes in pastoral appointments to orthodox congregations, the firing or forced resignations of orthodox faculty members at United Methodist seminaries, and the increasing intolerance toward evangelical, orthodox United Methodists by persons of different theologies are all leading indicators of intolerance that is to come in the present or post-separation United Methodist Church. I’ve experienced this personally. Those who hold the political advantage in my annual conference have intentionally acted to exclude and sideline my participation for ten years largely because I’ve refused to change my deeply held beliefs and convictions related to the presenting symptom that divides us. To be honest, this experience has helped me realize our need to be in separate expressions of church.
Fifth, we’re hurting each other. The fifty-year history of the United Methodist Church is littered with the casualties of the harm our inability to resolve and hold one another accountable to our differences has caused. We’ve tolerated it because of our belief in and loyalty to the institution. As a student of leadership and organizations, I’ve learned a very important lesson about institutions—they exist to protect themselves. When an institution (or those charged with protecting it) is threatened, it will do whatever is necessary to preserve itself—even to the point of breaking its own rules and violating its own ethos to silence dissent and contrary views. Loss is calculated, retrenchment and organizational reforms are attempted, and individuals are often sacrificed on the altar of institutional preservation. These patterns accelerate as the threat increases. Over the years, our effort to preserve the institution has done harm. In recent months, those who would preserve the institution of the United Methodist Church appear to be working overtime.
Sixth, we need to stop fighting and start planting. The Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Micah foretold of a time when God’s people would beat their swords into plowshares. It’s a reminder the day would come to stop fighting and start planting again. During the 50+ years of our existence as a denomination, we’ve learned how to fight with each other. We’ve developed finely tuned machinery for waging ecclesiastical war. The fighting hasn’t only scarred the soul of our church, it’s damaged our social witness. Each negative headline or social media skirmish only serves to further damage our witness and sully our reputation. I have a long-time friend who’s a bishop of the United Methodist Church. We’ll end up in different expressions of Methodism when we get to the other side, but we’ve worked together to try to get us to a place of amicable separation because we’ve come to believe we’re hurting the work of the Kingdom with our fighting. It’s time for us to find ways to bless and send one another into a hopeful future rather than continue to fight and rend what’s left of our tattered church. Friends, the time has come for us to reclaim our theological roots, rediscover the practices that fueled the Methodist revival, and stop fighting so we can beat our swords into plowshares and start planting the seeds for a new expression. Who’s with us?
Jeff Greenway is Senior Pastor of Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, and Vice-Chairperson of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council.
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