The Break-Up

Posted: October 20, 2012 by Matt Horan in Uncategorized
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By Matt Horan

The Service of Licensing, Commissioning, and Ordination at the 2011 Florida Annual Conference.

Today I read a thoughtful and reasoned exploration of the future of the United Methodist Church written by Professor Jack Jackson from Clermont School of Theology.  I’ve been a fan of Jack’s from afar for several years, and have great faith in his heart’s desire for Methodism to be a vital movement that draws people to Christ, and builds the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

The article is well done, but I think there is a more excellent way.

I urge anyone to read the article, as any summary here will fail to do justice to a well-written piece.  Briefly, however, Jack explored the possible endgames that lay ahead for the United Methodist Church should we continue to spend considerable resources of time and energy arguing over the  issue of homosexuality.  The United Methodist Church is experiencing it’s most rapid growth in nations that tend to support the current language in the denomination’s Book of Discipline which prohibits United Methodist clergy from performing same-sex marriages, and prohibits a homosexual person from becoming a candidate for ordained ministry.   With both sides on the issue well-entrenched, Jack suggests that the time has come for this “united” church to explore disunion: a split into two distinct denominations along the fault line of progressive and traditional views of human sexuality.

I disagree with Jack here.  First, one cannot read the letters of Paul, Peter, John, and others without gaining a sense that they were working incredibly hard to hold the fledgling Christian movement together.  Often it appeared as if they were answering letters they had received from the Christian communities springing up around the Mediterranean, helping them find some sense of orthodoxy around various issues that arose.  They had questions about celebrating the Lord’s Supper, about divisions in their ministry, and about teachers that seemingly contradicted the teachings of Peter, John, Paul, and others.  They even had to write about factions that were forming around individuals such as Paul, Peter, and Apollos.  Their advice was to remain committed together under one name–Jesus Christ.  “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.” (1Corinthians 3:11)

They also wrote against the practice of homosexuality.  What we’ll do with those writings that is at the heart of the discussion, but that’s for another day.

Jack rightly observes that the debate has distracted us from dealing with forces that have pushed the United Methodist Church into a precipitous decline.  Perhaps if we put the issue to bed by amicably agreeing to disagree and go our separate ways, we might be able to refocus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  However, a schism in the United Methodist Church, amicable as it might be, would be wrong for us.  The spirit of the New Testament letters urge us to be one.  Jesus Christ prayed that we would be one.  When we recite the words of the liturgy every week in celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion we pray, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at his Heavenly banquet.”  While it seems that an amicable separation might make the fighting stop so that we can find ways to renew the church, it also seems to say that we’ve stopped living in this expectation of the Holy Spirit.  We’ve taken matters into our own hands, which never really tends to go well for us.

Second, proposing that they get their “own denomination” is a misunderstanding of those who hope for full inclusion.  To most LGBT Christians, their sexuality is not the most important part of their faith journey.  They are growing in their commitment to offering their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to God and to the mission of the church.  They aren’t in search of a group of homosexuals to be a church together.  I don’t mean to minimize the issue, but while I can’t speak for all, obviously, the homosexual Christians I know care more about living as a part of the body of Christ and offering their spiritual gifts to advance the cause of Christ in the world than activism around this or any other one issue.

Third, while Jack does mention the impending challenge of dividing up the assets, we can’t overlook the mathematical and geographical nightmare it would be to sort that out.  The work it would take, the lawyers it would take, the time it would take would consume us a hundred-fold more than the debate does at the moment.  What would we do with the pension system, the United Methodist Foundations, the various boards and agencies, the camps, United Methodist Communications, the church buses, the United Methodist Facebook page?  How many lawsuits will ensue when families who donated something to their church in honor of a family member want it back because their local United Methodist congregation didn’t join the side that they thought it should?  It would be apocalyptic–a revelation that we’d made a terrible mistake.

Lastly, I shudder to think of the exercise that we would force every United Methodist to go through as they decided, “What kind of Methodist are you going to be?”  The two denominations would undoubtedly keep score as to how many they were able to get to join their side, only driving the wedge far deeper than it is today.  What of the families and friends that don’t agree on this one issue, but share so much else in common?  Who serve together on the parking team, or share their lives together in a small group.  We would ask every United Methodist to stand up and pick a side, with neither really able to make a compelling case that they are more a choice to follow Jesus than the other.

If we divide ourselves over this issue, we will have failed to remember the things we have in common, which are far more important than where we stand on the issue of homosexuality.  It is clearly time for us to think of a way ahead that is different than lobbying for votes every four years and producing a large collection of embittered losers every time.  Perhaps the United Methodist Church might explore becoming a confederation of churches that leave space for practices of ministry to emerge locally, while remaining committed together to share resources and continue our global Kingdom-building mission.

Some days breaking up looks a lot easier than staying together.  Even so, I still keep advising married couples in my congregation: “I know it’s hard work to stick together, but keep at it.  In the end you’ll see it was all worth it.”

I am thankful for Jack raising this issue in a thoughtful way, but I still think it’s pretty good advice.

  1. John Stott says:

    I agree Matt, stick together is the right answer. We think we are so different and so advanced in the 21st century, but you correctly point out that these issues are as old as the church. We have too much in common as followers of Jesus to let this issue divide us. As always Matt, well written and well reasoned!


  2. creedpogue says:

    What is the point of having a Book of Discipline if everyone feels free to publicly flaunt their disobedience to it because they have an issue of “conscience” as defined solely by themselves? Unfortunately, the real issue isn’t “acceptance” of sinners of various categories into our local churches. The issue isn’t even conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies. The real issue is that a number of clergy who are non-celibate and homosexual have been ordained despite lying during their ordination vows and being in violation of the Discipline every day since. They want to be able to serve openly. However, they are not willing to give up the temporal benefits that come from being an ordained elder in The UMC (better salary, better job security, better pension, better benefits, etc.) as opposed to being in another denomination that operates on a “call” polity. If it was truly a matter of conscience and not a matter of comfort and convenience, then those who know that they are unqualified by the standards of The UMC to be an ordained elder would transfer to another denomination or at least give up their stole.

    There have been repeated votes on this issue. The results continue to be overwhelmingly in favor of retaining our current ordination standards. Even if the Social Principles were changed, the ordination standards aren’t going to be.


  3. […] in a previous blog I just finished saying that the United Methodist Church needs to stay together.  In fairness, I […]


  4. Thank you for this perspective Matt.


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