Eyes to See and Ears to Hear

The current social and political climate in America is increasingly polarized. Our culture one that is quick to differentiate between “us” and “them” however we may define those terms. There is a hesitancy, in most cases an outright refusal, to see where the other side may be right. In 2020 I believe that Republicans still have things to learn from Democrats and vice versa.

This attitude and mentality of polarization has infected the current debate over human sexuality in the United Methodist Church. Those on either side of the debate have a hard time finding any common ground for the other and settle with demonizing their every word: even those that might teach us something. What I’d like to encourage us to do today is set aside our strong political, social, ethical, theological, doctrinal beliefs and take a moment to consider what the other side might teach us. Regardless of where United Methodists land in the current debate I am utterly convinced that the other side is saying something that we need to hear and my fear is that we are too polarized to take the time to hear it. So take a moment, set aside your preconceptions and assumptions of motive, and let us pray together that God would give us eyes to see and ears to hear what the other side might teach us.

*As a side-note, I recognize that there are more than two positions in the UMC but for the sake of conciseness I will keep our conversation to the two main camps: traditionalist and progressive.

Traditionalists:

I believe it’s disingenuous not to admit one’s own bias so I want to make clear from the start that this is where I fall theologically if you didn’t know that already. Traditionalists are strong advocates for the authority of scripture and hold to the traditional views of not only the UMC but the vast majority of the Church catholic throughout history that marriage, properly defined, is between one man and one woman. We affirm that all persons are persons of sacred worth, loved by God, who God desires to welcome into his family. However, we also view the practice of homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Traditionalists in the UMC have clarified the language of our denominational Discipline for decades to affirm again and again this traditional Christian stance. We hold firm to the witness of scripture and wonder how our brothers and sisters on the progressive side of the debate could so easily cast aside the clear teaching of the Word of God.

First, I would say that they have not strayed from what we consider traditional teaching lightly. Progressive United Methodists view the issue of human sexuality as one of social justice. They view the traditional stance of the church as harmful to those in the LGBTQ+ community and believe that the hurtful stance we maintain is not of God and that to advocate for full inclusion of persons in the LGBTQ+ community is to uphold their baptismal vows as United Methodists to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Progressive United Methodists are not coming from a place of nefarious intention.

While traditionalists disagree with the theology of progressives we must admit that they raise valid concerns. The church has historically done a poor job of welcoming persons in the LGBTQ+ community. It is also valid to cite the suicide rate of those in the LGBTQ+ community which is far higher than the general population. I believe we need to hold to a high view of scripture and a traditional Wesleyan/Methodist theology but we must confess that we are far from perfect. As we move forward into whatever the UMC will become (likely multiple, separate expressions) those of us in the traditional camp must wrestle with how we can be a convictional church that is also welcoming and compassionate to all persons regardless of their sexuality or anything else that may set a person apart. We serve a God who loves us where we are but too much to leave us there as the saying goes. We must work towards being a church that invites all into the family of God, into the universal holy love of God, while simultaneously calling all who profess faith in Christ to a high standard of moral integrity and Christian living. By the way, I’m not only talking about sexuality: we are a holiness movement! Christian holiness is not relegated to ones sexual preference but to all aspects of our daily lives. We must be careful not to highlight one sin as greater than another but instead to call all Christians to seize the power of the Holy Spirit to resist sin and temptation and conform our lives more and more to the example of Christ. Here’s a great article I came across recently that I think traditionalists should take time to consider.

Progressives:

The problem with the labels ascribed to the different sides in this debate is that they represent a variety of persons. This is especially true among progressives. I know some who are progressive only on the issue of human sexuality and are otherwise as orthodox as they come. I know others who don’t believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, or that Jesus is the only way. And lots of folks fall somewhere in between.

Progressive arguments on the issue of human sexuality come from places of deep compassion, solidarity, and a commitment to justice. I have enormous respect for their desire to care for and love all persons and welcome all into God’s family. While we may disagree theologically as well as practically (how we go about addressing these concerns) I like to think that I have learned much from my progressive brothers and sisters.

I would encourage progressives, once the dust of The Protocol settles, to consider what they might hear/learn from traditionalists. The main question I would encourage you to ask is: what are your theological non-negotiables? Obviously we are looking at a separation between traditionalists and progressives because of theological non-negotiables. But as I said earlier, there is a great degree of latitude within the progressive side on a number of other issues. What sort of church are you looking to build? A church that is pretty well orthodox and evangelical apart from the issue of sexuality? Do you still require belief, as a denomination, that Jesus Christ is the way? Do you believe in the virgin birth? What is the role of the Holy Spirit? Did Jesus rise from the dead? What is the role of scripture in forming your thoughts and theology? As part of the Methodist movement will you promote scriptural holiness and hold one another to accountable to a holy standard of living? What are your requirements for membership?

This is by no means an exhaustive list but just a taste of some of the questions that will have to be resolved in the Post Separation UMC. And hear me when I say, this isn’t just some hypothetical slippery slope. This is the reality that every other mainline denomination that has moved towards a progressive view of human sexuality is now living in, to one degree or another. Please decide sooner rather than later what you consider sacred and what your theological non-negotiables are. And when the dust settles, be ready to defend them.

Thanks for reading! If you like this content please share and subscribe for access to the latest 412Methodist content. We’re also looking to hear from other young, evangelical voices in the UMC. If you’re interested in writing for the blog send an email to matt@412methodist.com

Towards a Better Canaan

As anyone who follows the goings-on of the UMC no doubt knows by now a bipartisan group of negotiators representing various advocacy groups across the theological spectrum met with renowned negotiator Kenneth Feinberg to determine if a solution to our great impasse could be reached. Through a series of difficult meetings and tough compromises the group came to unanimous agreement that separation was necessary and they created a unanimously supported document outlining the various principles that the group had reached through the mediation process.

We must clarify, of course, that nothing has functionally changed yet. The Protocol is merely a proposal and has neither been voted on or implemented. The emergence of The Protocol holds serious significance though and it has quickly risen above other proposals and appears to be the leading piece of proposed legislation geared at ending our conflict.

While The Protocol has garnered widespread support there are those in every camp that are less than happy with the terms. As with any good compromise no group is totally happy and everyone wishes they’d gotten more things their way in one area or another. I’ve heard fellow traditionalists lament frequently: “why should we have to leave?” “we’ve won the vote consistently, why should we now abandon the church (name, logo, structure) to the other side?” Perhaps you have similar feelings about the path forward as proposed in The Protocol. Traditionalists have successfully upheld the language of the Discipline every single time it’s come to vote; why should we now give up and abandon ship? There are many who’ve already provided several great responses to such questions citing all of the practical and logistical reasons. I’d like to look at this through a different lens though: the lens of a similar conflict resolution in scripture.

Recently I was reading the Seedbed Daily Text as part of my daily devotions with my discipleship band and the story for the day was that of the separation of Abram and Lot. Like many stories in scripture I was familiar with Genesis 13:8-9 but had never taken much time to consider those particular verses of Abram’s story.

“8 Finally Abram said to Lot, “Let’s not allow this conflict to come between us or our herdsmen. After all, we are close relatives! 9 The whole countryside is open to you. Take your choice of any section of the land you want, and we will separate. If you want the land to the left, then I’ll take the land on the right. If you prefer the land on the right, then I’ll go to the left.”” Genesis 13:8-9 NLT

What parallels might this scriptural account provide to the future of United Methodism? First, Abram cited their familial relationship as reason to end their conflict. While the divide between different factions of United Methodism grow by the day we cannot deny the fact that most of us have close friends, even family members, on the other side. As our conflict has grown over the past several General Conferences it has been easy to adopt an “us vs them” mentality and forget that these are our brothers and sisters in United Methodism. While we may disagree on many points we’ve done some incredible things together (UMCOR immediately comes to mind.) One of the best things about The Protocol is that it seeks to end our harm to one another and part ways amicably and in good faith. This cannot be overstated. United Methodism now stands in the footsteps of several other mainline denominations but with the opportunity to write a different end to our story: one that models for the world what it looks like when followers of Christ work for the betterment of one another in spite of serious disagreement and division.

Second, let’s not miss that Abram allowed Lot a lot (no pun intended) of say in their respective futures. Abram didn’t cast Lot into the wilderness or force him to take the direction that seemed least desirable. He said if you go left, I’ll go right. If you go right, I’ll go left. Abram wisely saw that there was land enough for each of them if they would but part ways with their respective herds for the sake of peace. As with any good compromise The Protocol makes it so that everyone wins something, but nobody gets everything. This has been painful for United Methodists on both sides. Many traditionalists, for instance, are not keen on losing the denominational logo and name. However we will be able to go forth with our flocks, our properties, our assets, some of our shared assets, and be able to reform a new expression of Methodism without the institutional baggage we’ve been carrying for decades. It’s hard not to be excited by that prospect!

Third, like Lot, the centrists and progressives have chosen the path that appears fruitful. When given the choice by Abram Lot looked at the well-watered plains of the Jordan Valley to the east and took off, settling near the city of Sodom. I don’t have to remind you how that decision turned out. Likewise, many centrists and progressives view loosening our sexual ethics as a way to reach new people and grow the church. It seems to be an undeniably fruitful path to the Jordan Valley. When we look at every other denomination who has chosen that direction we see that, without exception, they exhibit even steeper denominational decline. Can progressive Methodists write a different story in the Jordan Valley? I truly hope so. But I have serious doubts in that department.

Finally, Wesley has an insightful note on Genesis 13:18 “Then Abram removed his tent – God bid him walk through the land, that is, Do not think of fixing in it, but expect to be always unsettled, and walking through it to a better Canaan; in compliance with God’s will herein, he removed his tent, conforming himself to the condition of a pilgrim.” Keith Boyette, President of the WCA, recently shared how a movement is at its most effective and vibrant early on. As it becomes stronger, bigger, and more institutionalized the movement stalls. The United Methodist Church stalled as a movement a long time ago. Perhaps now is the time to remove our tent, conform to the condition of a pilgrim, and begin our journey towards a better Canaan.

Thanks for reading! If you like this content please share and subscribe for access to the latest 412Methodist content. We’re also looking to hear from other young, evangelical voices in the UMC. If you’re interested in writing for the blog send an email to matt@412methodist.com

Ad Meliora

A young clergy perspective on the separation protocol

I’m not exactly what you would call a “cradle Methodist.” I grew up in and out of church and by the time I was preparing to leave home for college I wasn’t sure church was for me. All of that changed at a United Methodist college in south-central Kentucky. Lindsey Wilson College did many things for me. I encountered a group of Christians my own age who were living out their faith authentically and communally in ways I’d never experienced before. It was infectious and I wanted in. Before long I was in leadership with the campus ministry program, I changed my major to Christian Ministries, I accepted a call to vocational ministry, and I began candidacy for ministry in the UMC. After much prayer and discernment, I took my first appointment as a Licensed Local Pastor the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college.

I admit, I was reluctant to embrace Methodism at first. I knew next to nothing about the denomination and what they believed. However as I studied our theology, our Wesleyan heritage, even our polity; I fell in love with the Methodist movement. I fell in love with the grace-filled theology that marries head and heart together for mission; with the richness of our sacramental celebrations and liturgical worship; with the history and tradition that are our foundations; with our commitment to accountable discipleship and Christian formation. I could go on! The more I studied the more excited I was to be part of the Methodist/Wesleyan movement of the Church!

It wasn’t until I’d been pastoring for a bit and got more and more involved in the life of the denomination that I learned of the growing problems and divisions within the UMC over issues of theology, biblical authority, missiology, and human sexuality just to name a few. The largely orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of United Methodism that I’d fallen in love with in my home conference of Kentucky was not as common in other geographical areas.

The WCA came onto my radar through Troy Elmore, Chaplain and professor at LWC, who is a close friend and mentor. I’ve been active in our organization in one way or another since the beginning. I was part of the meeting that formed the Kentucky Regional Chapter where I was elected to our chapter council, in 2019 I served as a delegate to the Global Legislative Assembly, and recently I was appointed to serve on The Wesleyan Covenant Association Council. To the best of my knowledge I’m the youngest council member (as a 24 year old rounding off year 5 of pastoral ministry, you get used to being the youngest) and the only member currently serving as a Licensed Local Pastor.

As a young clergyperson a lot of things get assumed about me. You may remember hearing at the special General Conference last February that “8 out of 10 young clergy favor greater inclusion of LGBTQ persons.” I have several issues with that statistic but leaving those for another time, it is generally assumed that if you’re a young clergyperson you are theologically and socially progressive. Most stereotypes have some level of truth and this one is no different because there definitely are a lot of progressive young clergy. Perhaps they even constitute a majority. But I want you to also hear that there are many young Christians, even clergy, who are orthodox traditionalists. Who are passionate about Jesus and the gospel. Who are eager to carry the message of Jesus to the nations and the neighborhoods. Who are confident in the authority of the Word and the power of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that truth isn’t determined by how many people believe it and we are confident in the truth of the historic scriptural witness that has been foundational to Christ’s holy Church for 2000 years.   

Many have weighed in on the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation: the latest proposal for ending our decades long conflict. I make no claims to represent young people or young clergy however I do recognize that my beliefs have been shaped by my experience, my age, and my generation so I would think my views on the Protocol would encapsulate at least some of what young traditionalists are thinking. The negatives have been picked apart by both sides ad nauseum so I’ll be sticking to some points that I think are some of the serious strengths of the Protocol.

It minimizes harm. The first of Wesley’s three simple rules is Do no harm and it’s a principle that the Protocol attempts to live out. There have certainly been those on either side of the present conflict who’ve wanted to win at the expense of the other. The Protocol is our best attempt at saying “God bless you, go in grace, good luck” to those we disagree with (without trying to snatch their wallet as they turn to walk out). While I am a strong traditionalist I have no desire to harm the other side as we seek to reconcile through separation. Under the protocol neither side completely wins, both make concessions, and harm is minimalized to persons, churches, and ministries on both sides.

It frees us. This conflict is decades in the making. I’m already tired of fighting so I can’t imagine how those who’ve been dealing with this for far longer feel. For too long this conflict has been a distraction to both sides. It has distracted energy, gifts, funds, and resources from the ministry we are called to. I’m excited to see a potential end in sight to that so that both sides can focus their attention on making disciples as they see fit. On the traditional side, I’m excited to see lives changed, churches planted, disciples made, and revival fires kindled as we return our attention to the mission dei.

It gives me confidence. In my 5 years of pastoral ministry I’ve had numerous people wonder aloud to me why one earth I would hop on board the sinking ship of the UMC. There have even been times when I’ve wondered this myself. The answer is I knew this is where God called me, I knew I was passionately Methodist/Wesleyan theologically, and I knew that God was going to do something amazing in the wake of this conflict. I have never been more confident in those beliefs than I am now. I truly think we can look with confidence towards the future of the Methodist movement and see that God has a bright future in store for us as we pursue holiness in all spheres of life.

It excites me. Christianity in America is in decline. This is especially true in areas of the country that tend to be more theologically progressive. Under our current system, no traditional church planter is going to move to California or New York to plant a church knowing they’d be fighting their bishop and superintendent every step of the way. But if the Protocol passes I know many young traditionalists who are ready and willing to be sent into the modern mission fields across our nation. This is just one of many prospects that may be on the horizon that have me excited about the Protocol and the Methodism that follows. I remain utterly convinced that the people called Methodist were made for a day and a culture such as ours and that the fields have never been riper.

There are parts of the Protocol that are certainly in need of discussion and debate but overall, I’m excited about what it might mean for us. A final of encouragement to those who’ve been in the game much longer than I: there are young Christians who are passionate about our historic faith and making disciples. Encourage them, equip them, empower them. They are not just your future but your present. They are the church. They’re excited about the future and are eager to serve. Our future looks pretty bright from where I’m sitting.

And to the other young persons and young clergy out there: Hang in there. Pray. Fast. Preach. Serve. Study. Teach. Let no one look down on you because you are young. Hold fast to the one who has saved you and called you to do even greater things than he.

Ad Meliora.

Thanks for reading! If you like this content please share and subscribe for access to the latest 412Methodist content. We’re also looking to hear from other young, evangelical voices in the UMC. If you’re interested in writing for the blog send an email to matt@412methodist.com

A Fresh New Blog

Just a brief post to welcome you to 412 Methodist! I started 412 because I am absolutely committed to the belief that the church needs young voices speaking into our common life. I hope that 412 will be a valuable resource for the church and provide unique insights into our past, present, and future. Looking forward to the journey ahead, I hope you’ll join us!

Peace,

Matt