Those United Methodists who have taken a break from Prince Harry’s latest attack on his patrimony (416 pages!), might have noticed the latest denominational cannon shot from the bishop of the North Georgia Annual Conference.
Bishop Susan Haupert-Johnson, along with the District Superintendents in North Georgia, have stopped all attempts by local churches to disaffiliate from the UM denomination. They contend that some not-clearly-identified bad actors (presumed to be the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Global Methodist Church) are lying about what is “really” the source of the conflict causing churches to leave the UMC.
This perfidious, fearmongering, double-dealing, deception, the bishop alleges, is causing irreparable harm to United Methodists in that area and must come to a halt.
The FAQ section of the North Georgia bishop’s news release cites among the evidence of this deception:
Church leaders communicating to members that “The UMC’s theological impasse is rooted in our differing beliefs regarding the authority of the Bible, the interpretation of the Bible, its impact on how we live out our faith, and the Lordship of Jesus.” This is untrue and is among the most widespread misinformation we’ve seen. (North Georgia Conference FAQ section of news release on pausing disaffiliation process)
Well, now, that puts the pitch right down the center of the plate, doesn’t it? I am SO GLAD the bishop and the District Superintendents brought this up!
Just to be clear:
Misinformation and disinformation are real phenomena. But most of the time these days, it seems, the words are political labels applied to any information a ruling elite doesn’t like. Often, it’s used by progressive church leaders who want to see dissenting voices silenced or dismissed. Perhaps that is the case here.
So, which is it?
Is our denominational divorce rooted in differing theological commitments or not? I would say unequivocally, certainly, and without question that the answer is an unqualified “YES”.
And here’s why…
Though the headline issues of our denominational conflict revolve around LGBTQIA+ issues, the long-simmering conflict in the UMC is rooted in differing beliefs regarding the implications for living faithfully as Christians. Saying so is not misinformation or defamatory.
The Preamble to the proposed Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation originally intended for action at the General Conference of 2020 clearly identifies differing theological commitments as one of the primary reasons for denominational separation:
After careful reflection, discussion, and prayer, The United Methodist Church and its members acknowledge fundamental differences regarding our understanding and interpretation of Scripture, our theology, and our practice. The February 2019 Special Session of the General Conference did not resolve our differences related to the full participation of LGBTQ persons in the life of the Church. The United Methodist Church is at an impasse, individual members as well as the Church at large have been injured, and the Church’s witness and mission are being impeded. Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation and Restructuring
The differences between progressive theological commitments and traditional / orthodox / evangelical theological commitments within the UMC renders them incompatible. Here are three reasons why from my perspective – with apologies for a long (but I hope informative) read:
1. Cutting the Cord of Continuity
The biggest difference between traditional/orthodox/evangelical Christian faith and progressive Christian faith is a difference of sources and norms. Traditional Christian faith, whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, or radical Reformed branches, all hold the Bible to be the authoritative and trustworthy source of what we believe and how we are to live.
“Most simply stated, the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Bible is that it is supernaturally inspired by God and even infallible and authoritative in all matters pertaining to salvation—broadly defined as persons’ relationship with God and personal fulfillment. It is unique among books because it is God’s Word written, different in kind, not just in degree, from other great books. This belief in the special status of the Bible is found in the Bible itself (e.g., 2 Tim. 3:16–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21) and throughout church history from the church fathers up to the modern era.” (Roger Olson, Against Liberal Theology: Putting the Brakes on Progressive Christianity. Zondervan Press, 2022, Kindle Edition, loc. 889)
Liberal Christianity finds much of the Bible problematic, “pre-Modern”, and filled with mythical, supernatural elements which are not congruent with the consensus of modern, rational, scientific, and naturalist understandings of reality. Progressive Christianity, having deconstructed and dismissed most of the modern, rational, scientific, and naturalist understandings as classist expressions of the privileged, locate the source of authority within each individual. There is no Truth. There is only My Truth and Your Truth, but no objective Truth. The Bible has become a source of “sacred stories”, but they have no meaning or importance unless I determine that they have meaning and importance to me.
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor helps describe the underlying assumptions in this difference of “sources and norms” for how we think not only about theology but about the world in general. One way is what he calls the memetic perspective and the other he terms the poietic perspective.
Put simply, these terms refer to two different ways of thinking about the world. A mimetic view regards the world as having a given order and a given meaning and thus sees human beings as required to discover that meaning and conform themselves to it. Poiesis, by way of contrast, sees the world as so much raw material out of which meaning and purpose can be created by the individual. … As society moves from a view of the world as possessing intrinsic meaning, so it also moves away from a view of humanity as having a specific, given end. Teleology (the purpose or goal of life) is thereby attenuated, whether it is that of Aristotle, with his view of man as a political animal and his understanding of ethics as an important function of that, or that of Christianity, with its notion that human life in this earthly sphere is to be regulated by the fact that humanity’s ultimate destiny is eternal communion with God. (Trueman, Carl R., The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (pp. 36-37). Crossway, 2020. Kindle Edition, loc.528)
How does this relate to our United Methodist differences in foundational beliefs?
Dr. Kevin Watson, UM Elder and head of the Wesley House of Studies, Truett Seminary, Baylor University, among others, has reviewed the UM Book of Discipline (BOD) and its inclusion of the section entitled, “Our Theological Task.”
In 1972, the UMC “explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.”
The 1972 statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.” The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.” Dr Kevin Watson Blog Post “Methodist Doctrine: That 70’s Show“
Those who know UMC history may recall that the 1972 statement of “Our Theological Task” was explicitly replaced by a re-write in 1988 with the adoption of a new statement that eliminated any references to “the Quadrilateral.” However, the spirit of the quadrilateral lived…and continues to live…on. Most clergy, as part of their ordination process, are required to write or reflect upon their understanding of the quadrilateral. The theoretical, philosophical, and cultural assumptions I’ve mentioned land in the pulpit of every UM congregation as the preacher determines whether Scripture and Tradition are primary sources and norms for the witness, proclamation, life, and ministry of the congregation or, instead, the best thinking and meaningful experiences of the pastor and/or others are the primary source and norm for what we believe and how we behave. God’s Truth or My/Our Truth? That difference is pretty hard to bridge unless I come to believe that God’s Trust is THE truth.
Traditional/orthodox Christian understanding generally affirms
the Bible as God’s supernaturally inspired Word; God as a personal being above nature, sovereign, omnipotent, and unchanging; the Trinity as three eternal, distinct persons united by one essence or substance; Jesus Christ as God the Son, equal with the Father, different in kind and not only in degree from other humans, God incarnate yet truly human, the one and only savior of humankind; miracles, including the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ; and salvation as God’s loving and merciful rescue of sinful persons from hell and into an eternal relationship of blissful communion with himself in heaven. (Olson, Op. cit., Kindle Edition, loc. 365)
Summaries of the foundational beliefs of Christians are affirmed in the ecumenical creeds such as The Apostles’ Creed and The Nicene Creed.
One of our previous bishops in the Northern Illinois Conference, C. Joseph Sprague, in his book Affirmations of a Dissenter, denied Christ’s virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and atoning death, asserting that Jesus was not born divine but became divine through the faithfulness of his earthly walk, with the implication that others could follow suit. He suggested an alternative Trinity of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I asked him subsequently about the role of orthodox affirmations of faith like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. He told me that the historic Christian creeds were simply a matter of who showed up with the most votes when the church councils got together. We are free, he said, to change “orthodoxy” whenever we have majority votes to do so.
It is pertinent to note that a complaint by 28 laity and clergy against Bishop Sprague was filed at the time (2004) asking for him to be removed from office. The Supervisory Response Team (made up of four other bishops) dismissed the complaint, indicating these theological matters were (and are) the subject of ongoing public debate within the church, and recommended that those filing the complaint issue a public apology for breaching the confidential process of dealing with issues like this. Bishop Sprague himself issued an apology, saying, “It was not my intent that those who were unaware of the issues raised would be confused or hurt.”
A spokesperson for the group making the complaint, as part of their public response to the decision of the Supervisory Response Team, included in part:
“This decision appears to give official sanction to the personal interpretation of our doctrinal standards in a way that diminishes their unifying and binding force. Sadly, this approach to theology within the United Methodist Church will only deepen our divisions and weaken the mission and ministry of our church.”
If you are interested in more on this example of theological divergence in the United Methodist Church:
Some of Bishop Sprague’s Presentations Since Retirement
News Item: UM Archives and History: Complaint Dismissed Against Bishop Sprague
Though the North Georgia Bishop and District Superintendents allege egregious misinformation by theological conservatives, as these few examples indicate, progressive and liberal United Methodist clergy, bishops, and administrative leaders have, in significant ways, cut the cord of continuity between contemporary United Methodism and orthodox Christianity. Current United Methodist leaders, in practice if not in the “official documents”, seem committed to an alternative gospel.
(For more on this long arc of Methodism in the USA cutting the cord with historic Christianity throughout the world, see Matthew Sichel’s helpful recent article: Methodist Fundamentalists and Modernists: A New Look at an Unfinished Controversy)
2. The Jesus or the Christ of Faith?
Related to leaving the orthodox sources and norms of Christian faith behind, contemporary United Methodist understandings often follow the rabbit-trail of separating the “Jesus of history” (the real person, Jesus of Nazareth) from the “Christ of Faith” (the divinity, miracles, atoning death, and literal resurrection attributed to Jesus purported by liberal and progressive scholars to be myths added in the decades and centuries after the death of Jesus).
The incarnation, miracles, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, for example, are not literally real, but are, rather, symbolically real, we’re told. Jesus is not God, in any essential way; rather “Jesus” is the word people use to name their personal concept of the Divine Mystery. Miracles did not and do not happen literally; they are human experiences of wonder and joy in the face of fear, risk, or potential danger.
Instead of Jesus, God Incarnate, the Lord and Savior who will come again to judge the living and the dead, the focus shifts to the ethical teaching of Jesus. Instead of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins and the redemption of the world, the focus shifts on Jesus as a champion of the marginalized put to death by the oppressive forces of Roman “justice” in collusion with religious institutions. The traditions and doctrines anchored in the Old Testament are regarded as more or less irredeemably racist, misogynist, genocidal, homophobic, speciesist, and violent.
To discover the kernel of Christian faith, the real heart of Christian faith, we detach Jesus from the Old Testament, the miraculous and supernatural elements of the canonical gospels, and give attention solely to the “ethics of Jesus” which are reduced, primarily, to love. This love is expressed in advocacy for various forms of social justice and personal affirmation. Repentance, the need for forgiveness, biblical standards for morality, including sexual morality, as well as the Holy Spirit’s ministry of empowerment, assurance, and personal transformation are generally muted or excluded.
Traditional/orthodox/evangelical Christianity, on the contrary, holds that the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith are one and the same.
For those who want to go deep into the weeds on this, see the recently published two-volume set A History of the Quests for The Historical Jesus.
If you want a more accessible (and much shorter!) dip into this territory by a first-rate New Testament scholar and a United Methodist, see What Have They Done with Jesus ?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History — Why We Can Trust the Bible by Dr Ben Witherington III.
3. The Echo Chamber of UMC theological training, ordination, and accountability
This past week, in meeting with members of a local congregation, I was asked, “Why is the whole denomination being turned upside down and inside out over this? Will it really have any impact on our local church?”
That is a great question. If you’ve read this far already you might be wondering the same thing. If all of this is just a bunch of scholarly disputes, then you don’t need to pay any attention at all; go back to Prince Harry’s recently released page-turner!
But it isn’t actually that way. These different understandings of the Bible, of the foundational doctrines of the Christian faith, the mission of the church, the Christian gospel, and the Christian hope are part of every congregation every Sunday in worship, in every Sunday School class and Bible Study, every youth group meeting and confirmation class, every line item in the local church budget, and every dollar paid in apportionments to the annual conference and general church.
Hold on a minute, Scott!
When I joined my local church, I wasn’t asked if I believe everything in the United Methodist doctrinal standards, the ecumenical creeds of the church, or even knew the difference between the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation. Why should I be concerned about all this theology?
Anyone is welcome to a United Methodist congregation. There is no theology exam, doctrinal evaluation, or Bible test required to become a member of the local church.
But for every ordained clergyperson and local pastor the expectations are much higher…and should be.
Here’s the analogy I sometimes use:
I don’t need to know what goes into flying a Boeing 737 from Chicago to Dallas. I can just get on the plane and trust that the pilot and crew DO know what goes into flying a Boeing 73 from Chicago to Dallas and I can trust them to get me there safely.
The analogy is that I don’t need to know the Scriptures well (or even at all!), the doctrines and social principles of the United Methodist Church, how the organization of the local church, annual conference, and general church work together for the mission of Christ, how to develop a sermon, what goes into ordering public worship, or the practices needed to cultivate the health and vitality of a globally-connected, Christ-centered congregation. But as a church member I trust that my pastor not only DOES know these things, but is also clear in his/her calling and personally, authentically committed to living the faith and fulfilling their ministry…whether members of the congregation do or not.
The “echo chamber” of our clergy orders are a closed system. Though a local church must recommend a person as a candidate for representative ministry, once that happens the candidate is largely in the hands of the other clergy throughout the ordination process, the theological training of our seminaries or course of study classes, the Board of Ordination for evaluation and recommendation, the vote of the Clergy Session of the Annual Conference for ordination, the appointment by the bishop, and ongoing evaluation by the District Superintendent. When this system is grounded in and committed to the traditional / orthodox / evangelical faith, the local church can have – and should have – great trust that the pastor appointed to serve the congregation will teach, preach, defend, promote, and defend the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3-4). But if the system is grounded in alternative or conflicting theological commitments, then the trust of the local church may well be misplaced.
Here are three examples that have in impact on the present and future of local churches in our annual conference:
- The Northern Illinois Annual Conference, through its annual conference vote following the 2019 Special General Conference, its Board of Ordained Ministry, the UM seminary in which most of our clergy are trained, and its episcopal leadership have been exceedingly clear that our annual conference has a deep-seated commitment to progressive theological perspectives and, consequently, a fundamental skepticism of any ministry candidates holding traditional / orthodox / evangelical theological perspectives and commitments. Recall that in June of 2019, the NIC voted by 84% in a straw poll to oppose the “Traditional Plan” adopted by the General Conference and refuse to implement or support its provisions; that is, the NIC opposes the current Book of Discipline and refuses to implement or support those provisions.
- UMCNext, a progressive advocacy group led by our own NIC Treasurer and Director of Administrative Services Lonnie Chafin, along with North Georgia Bishop Susan Hauptert-Johnson (now assigned to Virginia), and denominational influencers such as Rev. Adam Hamilton, has a four-point agenda for the future of the UMC. It includes, in part:
- We commit to resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people and build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations, and abilities.
- We reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and will resist its implementation.
- We will work to eliminate discriminatory language and restrictions and penalties in the Discipline regarding LGBTQ persons.
- All five U.S. jurisdictions, including the North Central Jurisdiction of which we are a part, approved in November a piece of legislation called “Queer Delegates Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People in the UMC.” In addition to calling for an abeyance of all charges related to the sexuality standards of the Discipline, the statement called for “a future of The United Methodist Church where LGBTQIA+ people will be protected, affirmed, and empowered in the life and ministry of the church in our Jurisdiction, including as laity, ordained clergy, in the episcopacy, and on boards and agencies.”
The way forward to the continuing United Methodist Church could not be clearer.
The conflict causing local churches to leave the United Methodist Church is without question rooted in profound in theological differences. It is easy to see why come conclude that Liberal Christianity and Progressive Christianity are alternative religions under the cover and auspices of traditional Christian language, symbols, rituals, tradition, and organization.
The North Georgia United Methodist bishop and District Superintendents allege that traditionalists are dealing in misinformation and disinformation at such an egregious level that it renders all of the votes by congregations seeking disaffiliation null and void.
I’ve attempted to provide a brief review (really, it was just a “scratch the surface” review), to indicate that the theological differences are real and profound. I don’t know if the North Georgia leaders are themselves distributing misinformation and/or disinformation, but they are undoubtedly a misrepresentation.