Northern Illinois United Methodists in a Season of Disaffiliation

Recently I took part in a congregational meeting with a church preparing for its authorized vote on whether they will remain United Methodists or not. In a sidebar conversation nearby the coffee station with a longtime member of the church, she wondered out loud why “these people” want to leave and why they hate the United Methodist Church so much.

She was experiencing the conflict, pain, and overall disruption of her church home. What was so important that it could tear decades-long relationships apart?

Knowing I was aligned in some way with the “dissident network”, she asked me directly, almost accusatorially: “Why can’t we all get along? This is crippling our church.”

As the disaffiliation process in the Northern Illinois Conference (NIC) is coming to its awkward and unhappy conclusion, her searching question echoes in the background for many United Methodists in many congregations, whether they are in the throes of the disaffiliation process or not:

Why DO “these people” want to leave so much? And is hate the underlying motivation for their action?

Here’s what I said to her…

Clearly there’s only so much you can say over a cup of coffee during the moments between services on a Sunday morning. And, as with many of us who have experienced and perhaps are experiencing grief of various kinds, our “why” question won’t be satisfied by a “reason”; in our grief, we’re trying to squeeze out some sort of meaning for the loss we experience.

I didn’t address the reasons for disunity. I wanted to shed some light on the decision of her friends in the congregation who are intent on disaffiliating from the UMC. All I could come up with was something like this:

“There are many people in many United Methodist congregations that have concluded they can no longer support the United Methodist denomination no matter how much they love their local church. Some congregations vote to leave. Other United Methodists end up leaving their congregation in search of a new church home. Still others, tragically, will be done with church altogether. But in all of these situations one thing is the same: people have concluded that they would rather go without the UMC than remain within it.”

My response was largely inadequate, of course. It was descriptive but not very helpful. She replied, “Well, I guess we’ll see what happens here when we vote.” And that was descriptive, too.

But her question still hangs in mid-air: WHY?
Why would a member of a local church, or even whole congregation, decide to leave the United Methodist Church (UMC) behind?

With the benefit of some time for additional reflection, I’ve distilled three statements from numerous and varied conversations over the last three years. These statements provide what I think is a succinct summary of three underlying reasons that seem to provide the warrant for some United Methodists, and some United Methodist congregations, to determine that they must leave the denomination in one way or another.

“The United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, doesn’t seem to be a Christian church any longer.”

“The leaders of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, can no longer be trusted.”

“The future of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, does not seem worth the investment of my/our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.”

Maybe you’ve said some of these same or similar things to yourself or to a few others. Or maybe you’ve attempted to dismiss these comments from others in your local church as if not saying them or not hearing them will make them go away or at least relegate them to the easily dismissed category of “misinformation” or “disinformation”.

These are provocative statements. They broaden the focus from the narrower point of denominational conflict related to sexuality, gender orientation, marriage, and qualifications for ordained ministry to the more foundational underlying concerns about the nature, leadership, and institutional decline of our denominational home.

I will take them one at a time through an email/social media posting each week over the next few weeks. You can decide for yourself whether United Methodism is a Christian church any longer, whether our leaders are trustworthy, and whether our denomination is in need of some basic re-organization or is, sadly, beyond reformation.

On the other hand, you might be among the United Methodist leaders and influencers who are standing on tiptoe just waiting for the dawning of the wonderful day when the “theology of the past” can be left behind in an accelerated pursuit of a more purely progressive future. Most likely, though, find yourself among the largest group who want someone, somewhere to resolve our denominational culture of contentious conflict. We tried that with a specially called General Conference in St. Louis in 2019. The outcome was like pouring gasoline on smoldering embers. The current unraveling of the UMC grew out of the recognition not only that we could not get along, but that we were done with even trying.

So here we go with the first and, in many respects, most foundational summary from conversations over the last three years. Why DO “these people” want to leave so much?

“The United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, doesn’t seem to be a Christian church any longer.”

This is a doozy, isn’t it? Few say it out loud. Even fewer can deny it is in the background of every church vote to disaffiliate. The ambivalence about whether the UMC is a Christian denomination any longer revolves around at least these three dynamics:

Theology

Let me be very clear and unambiguous: the official doctrinal standards of the UMC, grounded in the United Methodist constitution and guarded by the high wall of the Restrictive Rules, Articles I and II (UM Book of Discipline, ¶ 17), have not and presumably will not change.

Yet, the half-century of conflict in our denomination over sexuality, sexual orientation, sexual morality, the definition of Christian marriage, and the standards for ordination are recognized by most to be rooted in theological differences between the progressives/liberals/liberationists and the traditionalists/evangelicals/orthodox. (If you want a longer read on these theological differences, with apologies for a few proofreading errors, see my Liar Liar, Pants on Fire! The North Georgia Throwdown.)

How can this be? We have the same official doctrinal standards today as we had when we started in 1968. They have not and will not change. What’s with the “theological differences”?

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement in 18th Century England, emphasized practical divinity. Practical divinity can be described as putting our actual beliefs into motion through our actual devotional practices, our actual theological commitments, and our actual priorities for the use of our resources. In this arena of the “actual” as contrasted with the “official”, we can see the unbridgeable chasm between the practical divinity of the progressives/liberals/liberationists and the traditionalists/evangelicals/orthodox. Theoretically we ought to be able to all get along; but it is painfully obvious that there is no practical way in which we can.

Dr. Roger Olson, Emeritus Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Truett Seminary/Baylor University, has written extensively on the distinction between liberal Christianity and orthodox Christianity. I’ve adapted one version of his summary here which also comments on “Progressive Christianity.”

“Progressive Christian” is a label preferred by many younger liberal-leaning Christians, but that label pretty much just means being a Christian and also for full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in all programs and offices of the church. “Progressive Christianity” is not a tradition, per se, but an extension of “Liberal Christianity.” “Progressive” is a vague label many use to indicate that they are not a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical Christian.

“Liberal Christianity, however, is a tradition dating back a couple of centuries. What are the hallmarks of liberal Christianity to which “progressivism” attaches its adherents? Here are ten ways liberal/progressive Christianity differs from traditional/evangelical/orthodox Christianity:

  1. First, possibly foremost, a naturalistic theism, belief in a God who does not intervene supernaturally in history or nature.
  2. Second, an emphasis on God’s immanence over God’s transcendence.
  3. Third, a critical stance toward the Bible as primarily human but “our sacred stories,” inspired insofar as they are inspiring to us.
  4. Fourth, a low Christology in which Jesus Christ is NOT God incarnate but the model of humanity.
  5. Fifth, a belief that “salvation” means spirit overcoming nature; the human person becoming his or her best self.
  6. Sixth, symbolic realism—belief that religious symbols, especially Christian ones, have power to transform persons even if they do not “connect” with historical events (except the historical reality of the man Jesus about whom we do not really know very much).
  7. Seventh, belief in eventual universal salvation; everyone goes to heaven, presuming there is an afterlife of some sort.
  8. Eighth, elevation of ethics over doctrine to the point that doctrines do not really matter very much.
  9. Ninth, “witness” as social transformation—toward liberation from poverty and oppression.
  10. Tenth, back to item # 1: devoid of miracles including the ontological incarnation, the historical resurrection, Christ’s exorcisms and healings, etc.

“At the end of the day, real liberal Christianity is not authentic Christianity because it cuts the cord of continuity between itself and biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity so thoroughly that it deserves to be called its own religion. Yes, like Judaism, Islam and the Bahai Faith it has a place for Jesus Christ, but he is not considered absolutely unique or unsurpassable. He is different from other prophets and saviors in degree, not in kind. That makes it a different religion from biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity.”

Dr. Roger Olson Distinctions between Progressive/Liberal Christians and Evangelical/Traditional Christians

Inasmuch as United Methodism overall and the Northern Illinois Conference in particular has strongly aligned itself with “Progressive Christianity”, it is a different religion from what St. Vincent of Lérins described as “what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.” (If you want more on the fifth century St. Vincent and the Vincentian Canon, here you go: St Vincent and the Vincentian Canon. If you want recent examples of the theological unmooring in our denomination, go to: Departing from the Faith)

My observation here is straightforwardly descriptive. The “practical divinity” of United Methodism and the NIC is not biblical, historical, orthodox Christianity. Our Progressive Christian leaders and influencers would say, with great relief, I think, “Exactly so!”

Priorities

The priorities of the UMC and the North Central Jurisdiction of which the NIC is part seem to have abandoned the first priority John Wesley impressed upon the Methodist preachers. And it shows.

The Jurisdictional Conference last November (2022) voted overwhelmingly (80%) to give priority to the Queer Delegates’ Call to Center Justice and Empowerment for LGBTQIA+ People In The UMC as the priority of our Jurisdiction. Queer Delegates Resolution for Affirmation.

Bishop Dan Schwerin, our episcopal leader in the NIC, recently indicated that our primary challenge is monied interests behind the “seething white Christian nationalism” that is infecting our culture and our churches. Bishop Schwerin We are living in a Holy Saturday Moment

Though John Wesley was intensely aware of the social evils and their larger cultural sources in 18th Century England, he contended that the first priority of the Methodists was and is repentance and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning death and resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil. The pursuit of, advocacy for, and living aligned with various causes of social transformation grows from the converted heart, mind, and soul.

John Wesley’s instruction to his preachers includes this setting of the priorities:

“You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore, spend and be spent in this work. And go not only to those that need you, but to those that need you most. It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance.”

Note, Wesley did not put first priority on greasing the organizational machinery of the church. He did not focus on how busy you are as a church leader, finding ways for as many others as possible to be enriched by your eloquence, spiritual insight, or clever public speaking.

The first priority of the Methodists was and is repentance and salvation through faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning death and resurrection victory over sin, death, and the devil.

How come? Why did Wesley set this first priority for Methodist Christians?

The late, and great (IMHO), Methodist theologian, William (Billy) J. Abraham, lays out the bedrock of this in Wesley’s theology and the consequent practical priority on evangelism.

“The core of Wesley’s convictions about predestination is rooted in his profound sense of the reality and superintending providence of God. For Wesley God really is an agent who has made the world and who knows from the outset what is going to happen within it. …

“Within this plan, God has critically decreed two unalterable policies. First, God has decreed that one group will be saved and another will not; there is a heaven and a hell and God decides who goes where. There is thus a vision of double predestination. Wesley cuts through all attempts to dodge this disjunctive decision. For God to choose one group and just pass over the rest is an intellectual fudge. In practice, to pass over one group of people and just let them remain in their sin is to decide that they will be damned. Second, the distinction between these two groups, while known in advance by God, is determined by their decision whether to accept or reject the mercy of God in Christ. Thus, the predestination involved is conditional. God has decreed that those who believe will be saved; those who do not believe will not be saved. For Wesley this was simple and clear. God makes the decree, but the decree does not exclude genuine human agency and freedom; indeed, it builds the exercise of such freedom into the very content of the decree.”

William J. Abraham, Wesley for Armchair Theologians, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, pp. 173-174

I know this is wandering into the theological woods a little deeper than usual (when is the last time you saw the word “predestination” in any United Methodist materials?), but the point here is that there is a heaven and a hell, that God has provided through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross for our atonement, that each person in all times and places has a choice to make which determines their eternal destiny, and….this is critically important… the unique, cannot-be-delayed, cannot-be-delegated, cannot-be-deferred mission of each and every Christian church is to effectively communicate the gospel, inviting all people everywhere to repentance and faith in Christ, so that they might experience the joy, freedom, community, and commission of Jesus’ disciples here and now.

That last paragraph, for the most part, will probably be considered babbling gibberish by Progressive Christians:

If God doesn’t decree or decide much of anything,
If Scripture contains inspiring stories, but is not an authoritative source of what is true and real and beautiful,
If Jesus’ death on the cross is merely an example of Roman oppression against an insurgent voice,
If the blood of Jesus Christ has no saving power except as an example that we should stand against the violence of oppressive institutions,
If the bodily resurrection of Jesus was and is not real but an exemplary illusion,
If there is no heaven or hell, no judgment, no accountability before God,
And if John Wesley is another example of racial and social class elitism who should not be regarded as determinative in any way for who we are as Methodists today,

then it is no wonder that United Methodism has largely lost interest in personal evangelism, personal conversion, accountable discipleship, and the mission of the church that is unique among all social institutions.

The impact of our aversion to evangelism in the Northern Illinois Conference is apparent:

The World is Our Parish?… No thanks, we’ll just hang out with the folks like us.

John Wesley famously said, “The world is my parish!” The history of the Methodist movement can be told as an unfolding globalization of evangelism, accountable discipleship, and, as one church historian put it, “organizing to beat the devil.” More recently, however, leaders and influencers in the UMC have decided that the church should be regionalized in a way that allows UMs in the USA to largely ignore the theological and ethical convictions of UMs in other parts of the world, notably Africa and the Philippines. This is promoted to “contextualize” the witness of the church in adapting to the cultural diversity of the world.

Well, maybe…

Most UM delegates now coming to General Conference arrive from countries other than the USA. Understandably, as voting power slips away from US delegates, there is a major effort to neutralize the impact of the generally more conservative African and Filipino votes on the progressive agenda in the US church, especially concerning matters of sexuality, gender identity, marriage, and qualifications for ordination. Proposals coming to the 2024 General Conference regarding “regionalization” are efforts to insulate the ideological echo chamber of Progressive UMs in order to neutralize the impact of conservative votes from Africa and elsewhere that have up to this point thwarted the progressive social and political agenda. The departure of so many theologically conservative UMs will only accelerate this process.

So, what?

We’ve cut the cord of continuity with the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3-4) so that, as Dr. Olson concludes, we are no longer part of “authentic Christianity.”

We’ve abandoned the primary Methodist mission of personal evangelism, personal conversion, and accountable, personal discipleship.

We’re on the cusp of segregating portions of the worldwide Methodist community so that the votes of conservatives can no longer impede the trajectory of the progressive agenda promoted by progressive/liberal/liberationist US delegates to General Conference.

You can understand, then, why individual United Methodists and whole congregations might leave. To them it seems pretty obvious:

“The United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, doesn’t seem to be a Christian church any longer.”

Perhaps we can see that those who depart are not leaving in anger and hatred; they are disaffiliating because the church they joined has left them.

Next week:
Can the leaders of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, still be trusted?

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REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

REV. DR. SCOTT N. FIELD

Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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