As the United Methodist Church goes through an increasingly bitter, slow-motion divorce, with theologically orthodox members forming the new Global Methodist Church, it offers an important cautionary tale for the rest of the body of Christ.
It is widely agreed that our denomination’s high-profile sexuality debates reflect deeper disagreements over such matters as biblical authority, the mission of the Church, and who Jesus Christ is. As a longtime leader of theologically orthodox United Methodists, I have closely watched the relentless, decades-long campaign to liberalize the UMC on marriage and sex. One key pitch used to sell my denomination, and others, into shifting toward LGBTQIA+ affirmation has been the idea that liberalization advocates are not asking for much, just a little live-and-let-live toleration. Now that the UMC has likely crossed the point of no return, those in other churches, in earlier stages of such discussions, should observe how this sales pitch turned out to be a lie.
Outside of the UMC, officially conservative American churches have plenty of members who have been wrestling with similar false promises. Over the last quarter century, mainline Protestants have heard the same misleading pleas over and over:
Since any stance will hurt people’s feelings, why can’t the Church just avoid taking any strong official position on same-sex marriage?
We can just adopt an official stance that we agree to disagree, and leave it up to local churches to decide whether to permit same-sex marriage or not.
If we merely allow same-sex weddings, that will not force anyone to approve.
Such rhetoric entices church leaders and members. They are tempted to believe they can avoid conflict and make everybody happy, all without compromising their theological values or forcing anyone else to do so.
But such promises are ultimately unworkable in practice and unsustainable in principle. Avoiding any clear churchwide policy is not as neutral as it may seem. Eventually, your church will face a same-sex couple seeking a ceremony to declare God’s blessing upon their union, or a non-celibate gay individual who wants to become a pastor. And when a denomination—either in its official policies or de facto inconsistencies in enforcing conservative policies—effectively leaves such matters up to different local church authorities, this results in a confusing patchwork of contradictory approaches. By avoiding a clear policy and leaving it up to local congregations, the denomination has already crossed major theological lines by accepting non-celibate gay clergy and congregations who celebrate gay weddings as falling within acceptable boundaries for faithfulness. It quickly becomes pragmatically impossible for theologically orthodox individuals to serve in leadership positions when they cannot, in good conscience, affirm such pastors and congregations as faithful.
The empirical record shows that, per Neuhaus’s Law, once orthodox teaching becomes optional, and LGBTQIA+ activists gain a foothold, mere tolerance will soon not be enough. Any restriction on transgendered or non-celibate gay individuals serving at any level of leadership in any congregation or region will soon become unacceptable. As an official speaker at the UMC’s recent November North Central Jurisdictional Conference declared, to the applause of assembled denominational leaders from across the Midwest, LGBTQIA+ liberationist ideology is a matter of justice, and “it is not possible for the church to not be of one mind on a matter of justice.”
Consider what happened to me and the other conservative delegates at this November conference. We were asked to attend an ideological re-education session for over two hours. In this session, speakers portrayed Christians as unloving unless they fully affirm LGBTQIA+ liberationist ideology. We were asked to recite litanies reflecting “open and affirming” theology and given miniature LGBTQIA+ pride flags to wear.
Liberal leaders now frequently claim they want the UMC to still have “unity” and “a place” for conservative believers. But when push comes to shove, they have increasingly made clear that this “place” involves (1) keeping our money in the denomination, (2) never promoting biblical beliefs on sexuality within the denomination, and (3) hopefully eventually abandoning theological orthodoxy.
Even conservative congregations who pay their apportionments and accept second-class status in the UMC face growing threats. These include growing difficulties in finding a non-liberal pastor, proposed demands for all congregations to report their compliance with LGBTQ-affirming intersectional progressivism, and activist pressure urging UMC officials to treat any congregation’s refusal of a non-celibate gay pastor as bigotry akin to racism.
To be fair, intolerant liberals have a point that division on this issue cannot last. Either Scripture is correct that unrepentant homosexual practice is among the sins that keeps people out of the Kingdom of God, or LGBTQIA+ activists are correct that disapproval of their lifestyles is unjust. These positions are mutually exclusive. So whenever a denomination lacks a clear, consistent approach on this issue, some of its people will be harmfully misled.
I was first drawn into the UMC after my (non-Methodist) congregation discouraged my intellectual inclination to ask questions. Now I have watched the UMC adopt its own anti-intellectualism, making it increasingly unsafe to dissent from or even question secular liberationist ideology.
Meanwhile, leadership purging and intolerance of orthodox believers is getting progressively worse in the UMC. Under a new provision of church law, United Methodist congregations have “a limited right” to disaffiliate and keep their properties (over which the denomination has long claimed ownership), but only if they act quickly. This exit provision expires with the final 2023 meeting of each congregation’s annual conference (the equivalent of a diocese or presbytery), usually held in May or June, with voting and paperwork due much earlier.
It will soon be too late for many theologically orthodox United Methodists. But it is not too late for members of other churches to learn from the UMC’s mistakes. Christians must be pro-active about walking and suffering together with brothers and sisters who struggle with gender dysphoria or same-sex attraction. This is much more difficult, costly, and loving than the “do whatever you want—I don’t care” approach of many open-and-affirming churches.
John Lomperis is director of the UM Action program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and an elected delegate to the United Methodist Church’s General Conference.
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