This essay is not addressed to them, the progs. It is addressed to my co-believers, the trads, who are still trying to wrap their heads around what is happening in The UMC and hoping against hope that it will all go away and just be all right, no matter what happens. It is not a call to head for the doors. But it is a reminder why doors exist, and why one needs to think about the unthinkable before it becomes the new normal.
Why I am a United Methodist, and what orthodoxy means to me.
I am a church orphan. I was eleven years old when my parents stomped out of the Spencer Methodist Church in 1964. My youth was thereafter spent at some distance from organized religion. I accepted Christ as my savior as a result of the evangelizing activity of a fellow student in my first semester of college. The church was not a part of my conversion, which took place all alone in my dorm room; nevertheless, I meant what I said to Christ, and I believe and teach that he meant what he has said to me.
It was a couple of years later, during my first year of marriage to my wife, that we finally got tired of waiting for someone from some church to come find us and invite us and tell us what church was all about. My parents were reconciling with the (now, “United”) Methodist Church in the town they had moved to, and their pastor had given them a published excerpt from the Book of Discipline containing our doctrinal standards. Upon reading the Articles of Religion in this borrowed pamphlet, I said, “I’d like to belong to a church that believed that.” Shortly thereafter, my wife and I walked up the street to First UMC, Terre Haute, Indiana, and crashed the doors of the church cold. We wanted to belong.
And it wasn’t long before I found myself in seminary, swept along by a whirlwind call from God. I chose to attend Asbury Theological Seminary, but not because it was the epicenter of evangelical Wesleyanism. I went there because a) I liked what it had in its catalog, and b) it was close. I knew nothing of the controversies within Methodism, or even Protestantism generally. For all I knew, everybody in The UMC believed all the right stuff and taught it faithfully and obeyed all the rules they were given. I suspected there were those who did not, but I didn’t know any personally, and I was willing to meet everyone where they were.
My experiences of the evangelicals were odd. I acknowledged then – as I acknowledge now – that there are lots of people I know who are six times holier than I’ll ever be. But some of the evangelicals’ attitudes were just bizarre. A fair number of them who had grown up in that religious subculture could not distinguish it AS a subculture; for them, it was the True Church, and all other expressions of the faith were deficient, if not deluded. And I kept getting dinged by my fellow students for being all head and no heart. My fellows were all about feelings, which were the proof of authentic experience. If you cried at the altar, that was more real than being silently thrilled by the organ voluntary, just because it involved a visible emotional response. I tried to explain my deepest feelings, but that involved words, and words were from the head, not the heart. But you’re using words, I thought; except your words have (in some cases) become mere slogans and you cannot accept anything that doesn’t come pre-packaged in just that way.
I made the acquaintance of other sorts of church members and clergy pooh-bahs as well. And I began to grasp that there were a lot of people who believed other things than the things evangelicals believed. We called them liberals back then. They were good at doubting things. They were most positive about “change,” especially social change. They despised the Evangelicals, and the Evangelicals feared and despised them.
Upon my entry into the ordained ministry in my Annual Conference, I realized that the arguments between these tribes could easily take over one’s life and ministry and render one constantly angry and bitter. I didn’t want that to happen to me. At the same time, I knew what I believed, and The UMC (at least, officially) agreed with me. I wanted to take a stand without becoming a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I wanted to be principled, but I didn’t want to go fighting everyone.
My solution was to decide to draw the boundary lines where I would rise up and fight very close in to myself. I decided that I would stand for the great definitions of the Creeds. The liberals of that day were all about nuclear freezes and saving the whales; they thought metaphysics old-fashioned. Meanwhile, the evangelicals believed all the right stuff, but they de-emphasized right teaching in favor of right experiences; metaphysics was something you had to pass in seminary, but was of no interest to them otherwise. Great: I had the entire field to myself.
I had drawn the line I was not willing to concede so tightly that I thought no one would ever cross it; hence, I would never have to fight over it. How shocked I was, then, in 1993, when the Re-Imagining Conference in Minnesota, co-sponsored by the United Methodist Women, declared its hostility to the traditional definitions of God. The money quote for me from that conference was the speaker who declared, “We don’t need people hanging on crosses and blood dripping down and weird stuff.” But this is the thing about trying to compromise with Wrong: Wrong won’t stay on its side of the fence.
Orthodoxy is more than metaphysics
At the same time, the tendencies toward heterodoxy in the church were coalescing around a sexual flashpoint. More and more, the presenting issue was “the goodness of gayness.” In 1984, The UMC had declared that although homosexuals were persons of sacred worth, the practice of homosexuality was “incompatible with Christian teaching.” For the last thirty-four years, we have argued over the meaning and application of that declaration. Today, the issue presents itself in the form of arguments over same-sex marriage and ordination standards, but at bottom, it is a theological statement.
“Christian teaching” includes the Creeds, of course, and the Articles of Religion, and the Bible itself. In other words, what we are arguing about is not the people who describe themselves as LGBTQ (in the current parlance), but about theology. What is Christian teaching? What can be left out, or changed, and still remain “Christian teaching?” Is Christianity just “what Christians do?” Or is it, what Christians are taught to believe and practice (whether or not all of them do so believe and practice), and always have been taught: that which has been received by Christians semper, ubique, et ab omnibus (always, everywhere, and by everybody)?
And what do you do if the church you belong to, which you have vowed to maintain and obey, decides that “Christian teaching” in some essential particular can be changed – and then changes it? What is your duty then? To whom do you owe your fidelity? And what will you do?
But is it that important? Well, to change the sexual teachings of the Bible as some desire would require one to either discard the Bible’s witness entirely, or to so stand it upon its head to make it say what it manifestly does not say as to render any claim to be deriving one’s teaching from the Bible ludicrous. Having once incorporated that methodology into one’s teaching, all other claims to be deriving one’s definitions of God, of Christ, of salvation, and of the sacraments from the Bible are also called into question. “Where are you getting this from?” is the critical question, and if the answer is “a majority of General Conference,” then of what value is what we say? Why should anyone care?
Now, as I say, there have always been people who thought that way, even in the UM clergy. Why get all het up about it now? But you see, before, I could always say that whatever So-and-so thinks or says, The UMC officially agrees with me, in both its teaching and its rules. Even if some disobey, even if they are not punished, still, the church is on my side, and when I maintain my teaching and obey the rules, then I can with integrity and without any hesitation invite people to believe, belong, and behave according to the teachings of The UMC.
But if the teaching is changed, I may not be able to do that any longer. And if I can’t go along with what has been passed, then I must take a stand, even at great cost to myself. If the line one has drawn for oneself is crossed, then to do nothing is to admit that all one’s convictions have been an empty boast. To believe that there will still be a place where one can do ministry – in some orthodox ghetto – is simply lying to oneself.
Lots of people lie to themselves. They say, “nothing has really changed” when things have fundamentally changed. And most folks hope that if they just keep their heads down, it will all blow over. But it won’t. If you want an example, I’ll give you one.
At the 2012 General Conference, The UMC did something we had never done before: we made somebody a saint. By resolution, we declared Dietrich Bonnhoeffer to be a martyr for Christ. We didn’t set aside a day of commemoration or anything, so far as I know, but in declaring him a martyr, we in effect canonized him. Who was he?
Bonnhoeffer was a German Protestant pastor in the 1930s, who saw what the Nazis were doing in Germany and resisted it. Part of the ideological program of the Nazis in the period before World War II was co-opting the Christian community. A Concordat was reached with the Vatican (it was hollow); meanwhile, all Protestants were required to become part of the “German Christian” movement. All German Christian churches were required to subordinate their teaching to the Führerprinzip (acceptance of Hitler’s leadership) and to the nationalist ideology of the Nazi Party. Most pastors and church members tried to duck their heads and weather the storm, but a few refused to go along. These few called themselves the Confessing Church.
Leaders of the Confessing Church mostly left Germany, as did Bonnhoeffer. The time came, though, when he felt called to return and minister to those who had refused to participate in the German Christian movement. He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. He was hanged in April, 1945, only a few days before his camp was liberated by the Allies.
Bonnhoeffer and his fellow Confessing Church leaders and members were very clear that there are lines that cannot be crossed, and subordinating one’s allegiance to Christ under one’s allegiance to an earthly country is one of them. In creating the Confessing Church, they were refusing to compromise their witness and teaching, even at peril of their lives.
There is no “yes, but” provision in either the membership or ordination vows. Still, we tell people that there are times when you are going to have to take a stand for the truth, and it may cost you everything you have to give. Evil, or Wrong, doesn’t only ever come from heathen opponents. It can come from those in positions of church authority. As Jerome wrote after the Council of Ariminum (AD 359) sided with the opponents of Nicene Christology, “The world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.” But whether one is challenged by heathens or Christian hierarchs, the problem is the same: what will you do when you are told, in Weird Al’s lyrics, that “everything you know is wrong,” and you must submit to the new reality?
Jesus said that if we deny him before men, he will deny us before the angels of God. Testifying to the truth is not optional. We pray that we may be delivered from having to do what we fear to do, but when push comes to shove, we are to speak the truth as we know it, and take the consequences. “Here I stand, I can do no other,” said Luther at the Council of Worms.
A wise person will take thought beforehand over the most fundamental issues, to decide what is worth fighting over and what isn’t. And likewise, a wise person will take thought for what to do in the face of a wrong too great to overcome. Obviously, I think that fighting for what is right is the first thing to do. After all, we trads have the official teaching and rules of The UMC on our side. We should fight to maintain them. But what if they are not maintained? What do we do then?
A wise man told me many years ago that in order to be happy in the United Methodist ministry, you have to be able to leave it. I was going through a rough time, as so many of us go through. Ministry is inherently stressful. Parishioners can be difficult, and bishops and superintendents can be unsupportive or incompetent. Lots of clergy feel beat up; many suffer depression. When you are depressed, you can come to believe that your lousy situation really is all your fault, that you just aren’t good enough. Which means that if you left your employment, you probably couldn’t succeed at anything else, either. So, you’re stuck. Being able to leave – knowing that you could do something else, that you are capable of making a living and succeeding in some other career, and having the resources to do so if called upon – means that every year you stay in the UM ministry is a year you have chosen to stay in. You are not trapped. You are capable and worthy. And if you stay by choice, out of obedience to God and love for others, then their dysfunctional behavior is on them, not you. So part of the toolkit you need to succeed in ministry is an escape plan to some other kind of work. You may never have to exercise it, but having it there means you are not trapped. You don’t have to take the abuse. You have other options.
Likewise, a lay member of a dysfunctional congregation needs to know that you don’t have to belong to that congregation. There are other congregations. You shouldn’t leave a congregation lightly; certainly, you don’t want to be one of the easily offended or one of the church-hoppers. We are committed to deep connections with this body of believers, and that may sometimes involve some friction. But when things go pear-shaped, remember: you don’t have to put up with the intolerable. Shake the dust off your feet, and find someplace healthier. When Crazytown UMC finally dwindles down to a handful of crazymakers because no one healthy will put up with them, they will either seek healing or go out of business, and either of those results is better than what was before. In the meantime, don’t let yourself be guilted into keeping Crazytown going. Leave the dead to bury their dead. God has called us to peace.
Finally, all of us bound together in a denomination need to understand that our first loyalty is to The Church, and The Church is more than just this denomination. We don’t want to leave it; we want to fix it rather than rend it. But in the end, if the heretics take over, we may have to leave. For me, the bottom line is and was, “Can I with integrity invite someone to join this church?” And if the official teaching of the church is more than I can protect people from, then the answer is No. If inviting you to join us sticks in my throat, then it’s time for me to leave. And if the issue is bigger than just me, if a whole bunch of us feel the same way, then we may all have to leave together. Leaving together might be a better response than all of us leaving individually.
Schism is a sin. I know. I have preached against it. I have resisted the temptation – and it’s been offered – to leave for greener pastures. But at the same time, there have been several occasions over the years when I have reviewed and updated my personal escape plan. I knew at what point I could no longer continue in ministry within The UMC. I knew that if we ever came to Point X, I would have to either resign my orders or betake myself to a more congenial environment. As the years rolled on and I came within hailing distance of retirement, a third option appeared: I could resign or leave or just retire. I’m glad to say, I made it all the way to retirement after 41 years of active ministry. I never had to activate any of my escape plans.
But now, there is a real possibility that GC ’19 may pass something like the OCP. The bishops are almost all pushing for it like mad. The progs and the denominational leadership (but I repeat myself) are all pushing for it. The radicals who are in active disobedience right now are willing to accept it – as a first step to full endorsement of all their beliefs and practices. The assurances that orthodox believers will not be constrained by letting the heterodox have their way ring hollow; and besides, if the official teaching changes – even if my little corner of the vineyard is told we don’t have to change – then I can no longer tell others that what I’m telling them, the whole UMC is officially telling them. At best, I am inviting them to join a faction, and a losing faction at that. They deserve better from the church; they deserve better from me.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is working on a plan to launch a new form of Methodism within 60 days of GC ’19 if the OCP passes. I don’t know if what they will come up with would suit me. For that matter, if The UMC starts to break up, it might disintegrate in multiple ways. No one can guarantee a clean break. But I can’t fault the WCA for facing up to the real situation of our times and developing an escape plan. I told a friend recently that I sincerely hope we never have to break the glass on the escape plan – and I’m sure the WCA leadership would all agree with me on that – but it’s good that there will be a plan or plans available to those who cannot in good conscience remain within The UMC.
As for me, I don’t know what I’ll do if push comes to shove. As a retired UM elder, I really don’t have to do anything to maintain my status. I am not required to attend a UM church. I don’t have to attend District and Conference events or participate in their programs. I can accept invitations to preach and lead in non-UM settings, as I always could. So, perhaps I could just drop out and refuse to participate any longer. I have more options than my fellow clergy still serving churches. But of course, this leaves out the life and witness of whole congregations, who are not as free as individuals to attach themselves wherever they please.
We can’t know the future; we can’t, therefore, know what options will be on the table when we get to Point X. (If we ever do get to Point X.) But we can know where we are flexible, and where we are bound. In all other matters, I will go to the very edge to keep us all together in The UMC; but past that edge, I will not go. As Martin Luther said, “my conscience is captive to the word of God.”