By Rob Renfroe –
The United Methodist Church gave the Council of Bishops two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to come up with a new solution that would stop our fighting and allow us to move forward focused on our mission of making disciples for Jesus Christ.
Unbelievably, the best it could come up with was a rehashed plan that has failed every time it has come before General Conference. The plan will be voted on by the same delegates who defeated it in 2016. It’s a plan that does not represent the majority of United Methodists and that the African delegates we work with closely have all said they could never vote for. The Confessing Movement, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, UM Action, and Good News have all said they cannot live with it. It’s a plan that will make many if not most evangelicals leave the church.
More importantly, it’s a plan that denies the clear and consistent message of the Bible, stands in opposition to 2000 years of Christian teaching, and requires us to marginalize ourselves from the global Christian Church – 95 percent of which supports a traditional sexual ethic.
It seems surreal that this was the plan to be floated to create a unified Methodist church and a vibrant Wesleyan witness to the world. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, and all the plan has stirred up is anger and disillusionment.
We have many fine bishops who teach and promote the orthodox Christian faith and uphold our biblical sexual ethic. And for them we are immensely grateful. But, clearly they are in the minority.
The very idea that the so-called “one church plan” will create unity by allowing every pastor, every church, and every annual conference to come up with its own sexual ethic is ludicrous. Why would the majority of bishops endorse such a such a flawed plan?
One possibility is hubris. Progressive and centrist bishops seem to believe that if they all come out together, the strength of their united influence will be sufficient to sway enough evangelical and African delegates to adopt a plan they have rejected previously as unbiblical. Evidently, these bishops have no idea that many of us distrust them and rather than thinking of them as the solution to our problems, we think they are a part of the problem. They don’t teach the doctrines of the church – which is their charge – and they don’t enforce the discipline of the church – which is their duty.
Perhaps they put forth their plan because they simply don’t comprehend evangelical theology and our heartfelt convictions. For example, one progressive bishop told an evangelical leader: “I don’t understand why you can’t accept the local option. It lets pastors who want to marry gay couples do so. But it doesn’t compel people like you to perform such services. I don’t understand why you can’t live with that.”
That bishop spoke more truth than he realized. He doesn’t understand people like us. It has to be frustrating for so-called centrists and progressives to come up with an approach they believe to be very reasonable and that allows everyone to do what they desire, only for us to find it unacceptable. After all, what could be more American than telling everyone “have it your way”?
To avoid any future misunderstandings, let me clarify what we believe. For starters, we honestly believe the Scriptures are “God-breathed” and, therefore, authoritative for our lives. We don’t believe we get to ignore or need to correct the parts of Scripture that a progressive culture finds hard to accept.
Furthermore, we believe in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to transform human lives. Few things can be more offensive than hearing that the local option is a solution that “contextualizes” the Gospel. If all they meant was thinking of creative ways to present Christ to people in different cultural settings, we’d be all for it. But when progressives talk about contextualizing our sexual ethics they mean changing the message to conform to the prevailing culture. So we are told that it’s still acceptable to teach traditional sexual values in the south, but it’s not acceptable to teach the same values where the culture is more progressive.
Traditionalists do not have a utilitarian view of truth. We don’t think the truth is whatever works or whatever sells. We don’t believe that God’s word is a lump of clay that we can fashion into our own image or into the likeness of a fallen and sinful culture.
We believe in the ministry of the Holy Spirit – and that the Holy Spirit is always doing new things. However, we will never be persuaded that “the new thing” the Spirit is doing is repealing the written word of God. Instead, we are utterly convinced that the Spirit never contradicts what the Scriptures teach because the Scriptures were Spirit-inspired, God-breathed.
Has God changed his mind? Has God received more light along the way? Has God evolved into a Western, 21st century, postmodern progressive as the ages have passed? If not, then how can the same God now be revealing a sexual ethic that contradicts what he has previously stated to be his will?
I get that progressives and centrists just don’t get us. It may well be that traditionalists are from Mars and progressives are from Venus and that we will never speak the same language. But what needs to be understood is that we cannot support a church that denies the full inspiration, truth, and authority of the Scriptures.
The bishops can try to lead the church to a place where parts of the Bible, the parts they like, are accepted as inspired and other parts are not and can be dismissed because you know better. But it will not be an easy trip taking the church there because there are millions of faithful United Methodists who will pray and resist every step of the way.
The evangelical renewal movement has told the Council of Bishops and the Commission on a Way Forward we cannot live with the local option. We have told them it will force us to leave the church. We have voted it down at General Conference. When they offer their plan in response, one gets the sense that they merely treat our convictions with contempt.
How else can the Africans perceive the bishops’ plan? Every African bishop has spoken against it. Where the church is the poorest, where the church is opposed, where the church is at times persecuted, the North American bishops knowingly created a plan that most if not all of the African delegates will reject.
Ironically, we are constantly told we’re better together. It has become a progressive and “centrist” mantra. If they really believed that, however, they would not propose a solution that dismisses the truths we hold dear and guarantees many of us will have to leave the church.
For the past six years, I have written and argued that we need a solution where there are no winners and no losers. We need to admit that we will never agree on a sexual ethic or on the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures. And rather than continue this prolonged conflict, we need to set each other free.
But that’s not what the bishops have done. That’s not what the centrist leaders who are behind the Uniting Methodists local option have done. They have decided to fight for what they believe. They have decided that winning is more important to them than a solution built upon mutual respect.
In St. Louis next year, there will be a traditionalist plan brought to General Conference that will maintain our current position on sexual ethics and that will make it easier to enforce the Discipline when it is broken by a pastor or a bishop. It will be the position held unanimously by our African brothers and sisters, most of The Philippines, many in Europe, and the evangelical delegates from the United States – in other words, the same coalition that has carried the day every four years since 1972. And it will prevail.
To those on the Council of Bishops who proposed the “one church plan” and claim to be on the right side of history, let me propose that there’s something more important. And that’s standing on the right side of eternity. And for that we must stand on God’s eternal word and contend for the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints. And that is what we intend to do.