Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Biblical Authority Question

Posted: May 16, 2022 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church

Churches all over are currently considering the invitation by leaders of the Wesley Covenant Association (WCA) to leave the United Methodist Church (UMC) and become a part of a new denomination.  They officially began operating as a new denomination on May 1, and on May 2 announced news that 107 churches will be leaving the UMC to join.

The issue that has driven talk of the formation of a new denomination for years is the issue of hosting same-sex weddings at UMC facilities, UMC clergy officiating them, and people in same-sex marriages serving in lay or clergy leadership roles in the UMC.  

However, those speaking on behalf of the WCA have frequently stated that these are actually “symptoms of a larger problem.”

The real problem, they say, is that too many who are staying in the UMC do not see the Bible as authoritative.  Frequent communication about the WCA and the invitation for churches to leave the UMC and join a new denomination, called “The Global Methodist Church,” (GMC), highlight this as a distinguishing characteristic.  Consider this from the WCA’s “About us” page:

It names the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” that uses Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience in discerning how the Holy Spirit is leading us to act, followed by a “But” that prioritizes their effort to “reestablish” the authority of Scripture.  They have repeatedly claimed that this reestablishment is a necessary correction to what is wrong with the UMC.

Both sides have lobbed criticisms in the direction of one another.  “The UMC picks and chooses the parts of the Bible they like, and ignores the parts they don’t,” or “The GMC commits ‘Bibliolatry,’ treating the Bible as an idol.”  

However, the difference between the two is not in their level of reverence for the Bible.

United Methodism and Christian Fundamentalism*: A Match Made in Haste

(*Note:  I do not use “Christian Fundamentalism” with any kind of derision.  I use it to connect it to the historic movement to which it has belonged for over a century that urgently sought people who would push back against what was seen as a brewing crisis in the late 1800’s: an attack by science on the infallibility, inerrancy, and literal truth of the Bible’s account of human history.)

“Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Jerry Seinfeld

Progressive ideas from universities in the Northern U.S. and Europe were being thrust upon a population in the American South that was just 30 years removed from the abolition of slavery, the Civil War, and the bungled reconstruction effort.  Around the turn of the 20th century, the conflict came to a head when science produced Darwin’s theory of evolution, which seemed to be a direct contradiction of the Bible’s seven-day creation account.  

With their culture and their economy attacked years before, now their faith was on the defensive.  The movement began within the Presbyterian Church, but with alarm bells calling out the threat of science on the Christian faith, it quickly spread to other denominations (including the UMC, which was called the “Methodist Episcopal Church” at the time) with slogans announcing that they were seeking people willing to “go to battle for the fundamentals.”  One of these fundamentals was the literal truth and inerrancy of the Bible, including the Creation story from the Book of Genesis, leaving no room for a theory of evolution.

Over the last 100 years, Methodism and Fundamentalism became intertwined.  In fact, they’re so intertwined that it’s taken decades to start pulling them apart.  As painful as its been to date, it is a process worth continuing and completing, for they are approaches to faith in Christ with significant, incompatible differences.

What’s the Difference?

John Wesley and the early Methodists organized their movement using what came to be known as “Holy Conferencing,” and it has grown to now serve millions of people across multiple continents through Charge, Annual, Jurisdictional, and General Conference gatherings.  This conferencing has resulted in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which is the collective wisdom gathered from over two centuries of clergy and laity regarding how to faithfully apply the Bible in the various situations faced by our churches in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.

There are leaders in the WCA and other fundamentalist Christian (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) denominations that call this ignoring, selectively reading, or changing the Bible so that we more easily fit into the surrounding culture.  That of course is a danger that must be guarded against, as sometimes the church serves its community best as a prophetic voice against the direction its culture is headed.  

However, conferencing and consensus building do provide guard rails to ensure that we remain faithful to the Spirit of the law at times when the letter of the law doesn’t speak as precisely to a contemporary context as it may have in a previous one.  

The fundamentalist Christian (Not that there’s anything wrong with that) approach of the WCA to “Biblical authority” does not allow as much space for these conferencing and consensus building conversations.  For them the end of the discussion is the Bible text itself, or the “orthodox” (or most commonly held) beliefs of the last 2000 years of Christianity; as the permanent and unmoving rule of faith and final word in all matters.  

By contrast, you might say that in the Holy Conferencing of United Methodism, they are the starting point in all matters.

So How Does This Apply to LGBTQ Inclusion?

The practice of conferencing implies trust that the Holy Spirit speaks through the gathered community.  As United Methodists prayerfully, humbly gather together to study the Scriptures and discern how to apply them in the situations that arise using resources such as reason, tradition, and experience; we trust that a consensus is evidence of the Spirit speaking to us.  A lack of consensus means that there’s more listening, praying, studying, and conferencing to do.

At times this process has revealed that applications of Scripture made in years past have not called for the same application in the present day.  There was a time when slavery was endorsed from Methodist pulpits using the Bible.  There was a time when God’s call upon Israel to cleanse Canaan of all the other nations and not intermarry with them was applied to mean that schools should remain segregated.  There was a time when Paul’s words that “women should be silent” were interpreted to mean women were not allowed to be ordained to preach the Gospel.

And it’s okay that the Bible says those things. It wasn’t the responsibility of the people who wrote the various books of the Bible to write them in a way that would speak to me perfectly in 2022. They were writing to a specific group of people at a specific time in a specific place. It is my responsibility to read those words, study them, work to understand the time from which they came, and then discern, in cooperation with others, how to apply those words in a way that bears fruit today.

In the process of conferencing, Methodists saw that the fruit of the Holy Spirit was not produced by these applications, and therefore we changed our application so that there would be a greater measure of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  It isn’t always the cleanest, most efficient, easiest process, but it has forced us to do the work of listening for the voice of the Spirit together, rather than just acting on the interpretation of one or a few.

The Nature of the Debate

WCA leaders have made the point on multiple occasions that John Wesley and the other early Methodists who first gathered to conference together would never have officiated a wedding other than one between one man and one woman.  They would never have approved of a same-sex wedding being hosted at an Anglican church (That was their church affiliation, as Methodism as a seprate denomination did not exist until later.).  They never would have advocated for the ordination of a man with a husband (nor likely a woman with a wife, had they allowed the ordination of women back then).  In this WCA leaders are surely correct–I can’t imagine John Wesley even considered it for a second.  

With the Bible text and 2000 years of orthodoxy as the two sources permitted to speak on the issue regardless of the outcome, heterosexuality is the unmoving standard by which they believe all should live.

In United Methodism, the Bible text, 2000 years of orthodoxy, reason, tradition, and experience are considered in community together in order to discern which application of the Scriptures will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit.  Once a possible course ahead is discerned, consensus building begins.

Therefore, as a result of these different approches, fundamentalist Christians (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) have retained the belief that same-sex relationships are as bad as the authors of the Bible said they are.  By holding this line, they trust that a life of “celibacy in singleness” would yield a far better life and bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit far more than marriage would. 

At the same time, some United Methodists have considered these Bible passages through the lens of reason, tradition, and experience; wondering if prohibitions against same-sex relationships might be interpreted as a contextual requirement for the time in which they were written, rather than enduring for all time.  They were written at a time when child-bearing was essential for the new nation of Israel’s population replacement rate, for helping with farming or family chores, to care for parents in their old age, to secure the family’s possessions being inherited by the next generation, or to signal the blessing of God on a marriage at a time before we understood medical issues such as infertility or endometriosis.  Instead, they began to consider that perhaps the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons might be a better way to love and support them, and offer an approach that would yield love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in this present era. 

Why Didn’t Conferencing Work This Time?

Clearly, consensus has not been reached, and so talk of schism has gotten louder and louder.  Some felt that the interpretations and applications of the Scriptures as currently codified in the Book of Discipline (prohibiting LGBTQ weddings and ordination) should be followed until such a time as they are changed.  

Others saw harm being done by the delay in allowing the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons.  LGBTQ teens and young adults not wanting to disappoint their families were committing suicide.  Others were struggling with addiction after turning to drugs and alcohol to help them stomach socially acceptible heterosexual relationships that were contrary to who they are.  It was becoming a matter not just of theology and Biblical interpration, but of human rights and safety and justice.

Further, LGBTQ persons were leaving the church, feeling rejection from its people, hardening their hearts against organized religion of any kind, and in some cases, against anything having to do with God at all.  

With the UMC growing the fastest in areas of the world where same-sex relationships are unacceptible, little by little more General Conference delegates were opposed to it every four years.  It began to seem increasingly unlikely that the policy preventing full LGBTQ inclusion would ever change, so some United Methodist clergy took matters into their own hands and began performing same-sex weddings.  Fundamentalist Christian (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) members of United Methodist churches expected these clergy to face discipline for breaking the rules, but these rules were not being enforced in Annual Conferences that were more and more supportive of full LGBTQ inclusion, and the inconsistency brought the issue to a head.  The idea of separation stepped out of the realm of possibility and into the realm of planning and execution.

Another factor working against conferencing was the 2016 establishment of the WCA.  It was founded with the claim that it was not the formation of a new denomination, but it was.  It was collecting fundamentalist Christian (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) leaning UMC clergy, laity, and churches by holding conferences, forming a governance structure, and raising financial support.  Soon most of those in the UMC opposed to full LGBTQ inclusion were gathered together into a group identifying themselves as the “conservatives” opposing the “liberals” who ignore what the Bible says about same-sex relationships because they don’t adhere to Biblical authority and are capitulating to the culture around them.

Previously, those in the UMC tended to hold varied, nuanced views on the subject rather than marching in lock-step, but the launch of the WCA kicked off 5-6 years of both sides reclusively retreating into separate tribes in much the same way, and along much the same lines, as our political tribes have done in the United States.  So it’s becoming more and more inevitable, but also more and more necessary, for this split to take place, so that both versions of Methodism can stop fighting, be themselves, and focus on accomplishing their mission.

What Should I/We Do?

Perhaps you are one of those people, or perhaps you attend one of those churches, trying to decide which, if either, of these denominations is where you belong. In reality, its not as easy a decision as you may have heard.

As is usually the case, there are fewer villains around than advertised. It’s easier to decide this way, but please don’t make the decision based on which side has most effectively villainized the other and gotten you angry about a nefarious conservative or liberal agenda. That’s too easy, and the world needs us to be better than that.

It’s easier to decide this way, but don’t decide because one says they see the Bible as more authoritative than the other. The Bible is the primary authority for both, and besides, that’s also too easy, and the world needs us to be better than that.

Don’t decide because one is on a slippery slope with no accountability or guard rails to keep them faithful to the Scriptures. Neither of them is on said slope, and besides, that’s also too easy, and the world needs us to be better than that.

Decide based on the actual difference. Do you think the whole Bible is inerrantly, infallibly, literally applicable as it’s written for all situations at all times for the rest of time? Or do you think there are situations that require holy conferencing, sacred conversations in which we listen for the Spirit and seek consensus, because there are parts of the Bible that seem to have been applicable to the time in which they were written, but not in every situation in every time for all time?

Decide based on which is most likely to help you produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Decide which one will help you to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and which one will help you love your neighbor as yourself.

According to Jesus, that’s apparently what’s most important.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.

Matthew 22:37-39

Comments
  1. Steve Harper says:

    Thank you, Matt. You have written in an accurate and helpful way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bob Crawford says:

    Amen and AMEN. Thank you for taking the time to write such an eloquent and reasoned article.

    Like

  3. […] “Should I Stay or Should I Go? The Biblical Authority Question” by Matt Horan. Describes WCA as a Fundamentalist variant that has attached itself to Methodism. (Added 5-21-2022) […]

    Like

  4. Rick Sitton says:

    The reference to the Seinfeld line “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” fails to remember the context. It was said, in one episode, regarding homosexuality. Even then, you could see the culture change right before your eyes. So, as a former student of Dr. Harper, I would posit one question: Are their biblical sexual boundaries that are timeless? The UMC has said there are, but now with new revelation departing from biblical interpretation consistent with almost 2,000 years of Christian theological teaching, you demur. Celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage is the standard. That’s what UM clergy vow to uphold. Why? Because those are the accepted sexual boundaries that we aspire to keep based on scripture. This standard came from “holy conferencing” because it is a succinct way to describe sexual boundaries. Either it is sin to go outside those boundaries or it is not. Where will the new boundaries be drawn in 10 years by the post-separation, remaining UMC?

    Like

    • Matt Horan says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rick. First, a couple of opening comments:

      I absolutely remember the context of the Seinfeld line.

      Let’s leave any disrespect you might hold for Dr. Harper off of my blog. He is a better man and teacher and leader of the church than ten of us both put together, so I’ll ask you to kindly not return to that here.

      I did not write the article to change the minds of people with a foot already out the door. I sense that your tribe has been chosen for years, and that I have nothing new to share with you that you haven’t already argued over with others who are better at it than me. I wish you and the WCA and GMC well as you go where you feel led.

      I do appreciate your helping me make my point. As you stated, Christian Fundamentalism would teach that the behaviors deemed acceptable when the Bible was written should be the same today as they were back then, while Methodism has a mechanism–conferencing–for discerning together how to apply the Scriptures in a way that bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit, and results in greater love for God and neighbor in the context in which it is currently being applied. This mechanism resulted in the Book of Discipline, Book of Resolutions, Social Principles, etc, which seem superfluous and unnecessary to Christian Fundamentalists.

      May both find a way to separate amicably and part with well wishes to all.

      Like

  5. popsichel says:

    Obviously, you’ve never spent an appropriate amount of time understanding the difference between the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy and what Wesleyan evangelicals teach and the history behind them. I would suggest spending some time in one of two books: Donald Dayton’s Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, or James Heidinger’s book, The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodism. One will find that the push in American Methodism and American Evangelicalism isn’t the same as what you’ve suggested here.

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    • Matt Horan says:

      They wouldn’t say that Christian Fundamentalists read the Bible and obey it, while those staying in the UMC distort it with our processes of reading the Scriptures in conversation with love another and in consultation with reason, tradition, and experience?

      I guess they’d also say something about how those staying in the UMC capitulate to the culture around us because we don’t like calling out sin and casting vision for Christian perfection as Wesley did. Do they say something like that?

      Like

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