If you are not looking for it, you will miss the news that one of the West’s oldest Protestant denominations is on the verge of a schism. A council of Bishops in the United Methodist Church proposed a resolution that will be voted on later in 2020 aimed at separation. If the vote passes, which observers believe it will, the American branch of the UMC will break off from the more conservative international wing of the denomination.
The issue? Same sex marriage.
There was a critical juncture on the road to acceptance of SSM and schism early in 2019 when their international convention voted to keep the biblical teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. By in large, it is accepted that traditional marriage won the vote because of the African delegation. The American UMC long ago began a slide toward accepting homosexuality and SSM as normative (my wife grew up in the UMC and recalls lesbian pastors and church leaders 30 years ago). But while the American church was ready to accept an expanded version of marriage and sexuality, the international delegation moved the vote in the other direction.
The reaction against the largely African vote was incredible. Methodist and progressive Christian leaders like Jim Wallis and William Willamon openly regretted having Africans vote, and wondered if a vote is “the best way to discern the will of God.” These kinds of things are said by those who don’t want others with differing points of view (in this case, their African brothers), to have a voice. The reaction from progressives was stunningly intolerant, culture-bound, and elitist. It is becoming a trope to say that those who demand the most tolerance from the rest of us are the least tolerant, or those who claim to be the least racists among us are the first to gripe with other ethnicities don’t tow the progressive party line.
The progressive American UMC wants to sanction SSM, and now they will get their chance. The denomination will likely split, with a cash payment given to the conservative branch that breaks off. Churches will be caught in the middle of the split, congregations will be fractured, and buildings will be caught up in costly legal and ecclesiological wrangling. All so a group of culture-bound progressive church leaders can perform same sex marriages, contrary to Scripture.
One of the lessons for the larger church is pretty simple: don’t think you will not have to deal with this one way or the other. This issue will not go away, and those who support it are vocal, politically powerful, and have a lot of funding behind them. The church and denomination you belong to will face this pressure sooner or later and it is critical that pastors and church leaders are ready to deal with it both theologically and legally. The old saying about the “nose of the camel in the tent” applies here.
This is one of the places where the American church will have an opportunity to be different from the world for the sake of the world. As one commentator on the UMC situation put it, “American Christianity and society desperately need a theologically cohesive rejuvenated Methodism. I’m looking forward to participating in a Methodist revival!”
He is right. We need to pray for the UMC, and for those who are working hard to stay faithful to the clear teaching of Scripture and to our Lord’s injunction to love our neighbor.