A Response to Thomas Lambrecht’s “Primary Reasons for Separation”
It’s been quite a year for all of us. COVID, protests against racial injustice, and a polarizing election. As a pastor, there seemed little time this year to focus on denominational division when we were trying to care for our members and serve our community in the midst of the crisis. United Methodists in many cities across the US—conservative, centrist, and progressive—worked together to serve our communities together. In 2020, we focused more on what united us than what divided us.
But yesterday, as I read Thomas Lambrecht’s article, “Primary Reasons for Separation” in the Good News newsletter, Perspective, I was reminded by Tom of the case he’s made for some to leave The United Methodist Church to form a new Wesleyan denomination. He noted that “the differences between the ‘sides’ … are so deep and so entrenched that staying together is unthinkable for many.”
As I read Tom’s post, at a number of points where he described centrists and progressives, contrasting their beliefs with traditionalists, his comments seemed misleading, not representing the United Methodist centrists or progressives I know. I don’t believe it was Tom’s intent to mislead, the article represents his understanding of centrists and progressives. And there may be individual United Methodists who hold these views. But I don’t believe his characterization of the beliefs of most centrists and progressives is accurate. I’m writing as a centrist, offering another perspective, one that I think aligns with most centrist and progressive United Methodists I know. You can read Tom’s original article here. I’ll use his headings to make it easier to follow along as I offer some counterpoints, clarification, and, at points, agreement with his words.
Source of Beliefs
Lambrecht writes that, “traditionalists and evangelicals within United Methodism” focus on “the primacy of Scripture to establish our church’s beliefs and teachings.” He then notes that tradition plays a role, along with personal experience and reason in interpreting Scripture, “but the source of our beliefs is the clear teaching of Scripture.”
I thought Tom’s point was interesting because what he described as the views of his “side” is what nearly every United Methodist I know believes about Scripture, namely, that Scripture is primary in determining what we believe, and tradition, reason, and experience are secondary. This is not a distinctively WCA or Good News approach to Scripture, it is a United Methodist approach to Scripture.
He went on to contrast this with the view of “many centrists and progressives” that “sees the tradition of the church and particularly contemporary knowledge (their definition of experience) and the application of human reason to be equal with Scripture as sources
of our beliefs.” I don’t know anyone who sees tradition, experience, and reason as equal to Scripture. I’m not suggesting such persons don’t exist, but they do not reflect the majority of United Methodists nor will they reflect United Methodism post-separation.
Lambrecht continues, “In [Albert C.] Outler’s misconstrued interpretation of Wesley, when modern knowledge contradicts our understanding of Scripture, we must change our understanding of Scripture.” At times, modern knowledge should lead us to change how we read Scripture.
Let’s consider a few examples.
In the 17th century, Galileo was imprisoned by the Church for championing Copernicus’ view that the earth revolved around the sun. This view was considered heretical, for such a view was thought to run counter to the clear reading of scripture. Eventually the Church embraced a heliocentric understanding of our solar system and, as it did, the Church’s view of scripture, and what it taught about the cosmos, changed.
As late as the 1700s, most leading Christian thinkers believed that the earth was less than 6,000 years old. Sir Isaac Newton, a devout Christian, theologian, astronomer, physicist and mathematician, suggested the earth was formed in the year 3998 BC. This came from a certain understanding of scripture and how one might read the genealogies and other dates found within the text. Today, few United Methodist clergy and laity believe the earth is only 6,000 years old. But to accept an earth that was billions of years old required a change in how Christians read and understood scripture.
Lambrecht continues, “this willingness to abandon (by some) or reinterpret the teaching of Scripture to match current societal understandings,” is the underlying mistake of those who accept same-sex marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian people and warns that it “also holds the potential for any number of other accommodations to cultural assumptions.” Here he quotes the adage, “Whoever marries the spirit of this age is destined to be a widow in the next.”
Throughout history changes in interpretation of scripture, leading to changing beliefs or practices in the Church, have led to claims that the Church was accommodating the culture and surrendering scriptural truth or authority. Some examples are humorous. As indoor plumbing was embraced in America, there were Christians and churches who refused to allow indoor toilets, pointing to Deuteronomy 23:12-14 where Moses insisted that latrines be dug outside the camp, lest God turn away from his people. Bringing toilets inside the church building was considered cultural accommodation. Other examples are much more serious.
Pro-slavery pulpits in the mid-19th century made what they felt was a compelling case that slavery was a part of God’s ordering of society. Slave, slaves, and slavery are mentioned over 700 times in scripture (modern translations soften the Hebrew word for “slave,” ebed, using instead the word “servant”). Though Israelites were once slaves, they were allowed to own slaves. Slave owners were allowed to beat their slaves with rods, with impunity, provided the slave did not die within two days of the beating, “for the slave is his property” (Exodus 21:21 NASB). Even early Christians continued to own slaves. To capitulate on slavery was to favor the spirit of the age over the clear teaching of scripture. Yet despite slavery’s prevalence and acceptance in scripture, Christians came to reject slavery as contrary to the will of God. Was it the “spirit of the age” and “current societal understandings” that led many Methodists of the 18th and 19th centuries to reject slavery, or the Spirit of God and a willingness to question and reinterpret scripture?
Some saw the movement to allow women to vote, to own property, and ultimately to be ordained as pastors as a reflection of the “spirit of the age” and cultural accommodation. The movement to ordain women in the Methodist Church required a reinterpretation of scripture, particularly Paul’s words. To this day, this practice is seen by some as a capitulation to culture. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently noted concerning the ordination of women that “the real issue is biblical authority.” Mohler rejects the idea of women preaching (at least in audiences that include men) and women serving as senior pastors and thus having “authority over a man. ” He and others like him see this as as cultural accommodation at the expense of scripture.
I don’t believe Methodists who supported women’s ordination or the end of slavery or who were willing to rethink their understanding of scripture in the light of modern science were “cultural accommodationists.” I would suggest they were reading and interpreting scripture with the help of tradition, their experience of the witness of the Spirit, and reason. I am certain Lambrecht would agree.
Self-determination vs. God’s Revelation
Tom writes, “Most centrists and progressives value self-determination as the deciding factor in one’s view of oneself. This is connected to the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, but truth is defined by each person for themselves.” None of the United Methodist pastors I spend time with would agree with Tom’s words. Instead, they would say that the determinative source of our identity as Christians is Jesus Christ.
Anyone who has ever prayed the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer has seen their identity and life purpose not in the self, but in service to Christ: “I am no longer my own but Thine. Put me to what you will. Rank me with whom you will. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. …” I begin each day yielding my life to Christ. I suspect most traditionalist, centrist and progressive pastors do the same. We do not see self-determination as “the deciding factor” in our view of ourselves.
I’m also dubious of the claim that “most centrists and progressives” reject the idea of absolute truth. That is simply not true. Most United Methodists—conservative, centrist, and progressive—would agree that God is absolute Truth, that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. That the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. And that Scripture bears witness to God’s truth. As it relates to Scripture, we also saw above that Scripture needs to be interpreted with the help of tradition, reason, and experience.
Tom also mentions that centrists and progressives assume “that what ‘is’ is what ‘ought’ to be.” Again, this is false. In most progressive and centrist pulpits I’ve heard, there is a regular call to repentance. As we prepare to begin the season of Lent, we’ll focus once more on repentance. Repentance is essential because of our fundamental belief that what ‘is’ is NOT what ought to be. This is true when it comes to injustice, racism, materialism, sexism and a host of other isms. It’s true when it comes to dishonesty, lust, pride, and greed. Often, we are blind to our own sin. With Tom I agree that Jeremiah 17:9 offers an important word in our day, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (NIV). This applies to centrists, progressives, and also to conservatives.
In the opening paragraph of this section Lambrecht states, “The centrist/progressive agenda is an unapologetic social-justice agenda. Promoting “inclusion” has become the highest value of official United Methodism. The left wing of the church appears to believe that the church’s main purpose is to “transform the world,” often through political action in line with liberal political causes.”
Should we not all be unapologetic in pursuit of justice? We all know Micah’s famous words, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 NRSV, emphasis added). The Hebrew word “justice” is mishpat. It appears over 400 times in one form or another in the Hebrew Bible. It is often understood in scripture to refer to fairness or equity for the marginalized—widows, orphans, immigrants, the poor who can easily be taken advantage of, those whose rights might be dismissed by courts or kings, people who are often powerless. This is not the only meaning of the word, but it is often the meaning we see in the Hebrew Bible.
I know Tom believes this as does every United Methodist I’ve ever met. In fact, this is part of what drew me to The United Methodist Church while a theology major at Oral Roberts University back in the fall of 1982. It was the way the evangelical gospel and the social gospel were seen as two sides of a coin: loving God with one’s whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving one’s neighbor as you love yourself.
Tom mentioned that “inclusion” has become the highest value in The United Methodist Church. I don’t know that this is the highest value for United Methodists. I think most United Methodists might turn to Paul’s closing words in 1 Corinthians 13 to articulate our highest values, “faith, hope and love” while noting with Paul “the greatest of these is love” (NIV). But inclusion is an expression of love and justice. Its opposite is exclusion.
Lambrecht mentions that “the left wing of the church appears to believe that the church’s main purpose is to ‘transform the world.’” I think Tom is right that there are some in The United Methodist Church who do see the church primarily in terms of community or global transformation, and these may miss Christ’s evangelical imperative and the call to individual conversion—the transformation through faith in Christ and the Spirit’s regenerative work. But again, that does not reflect the majority of United Methodist clergy or congregations. Tom goes on to mention several hot-button causes about which United Methodists disagree and will continue to disagree after whatever separation occurs.
Lambrecht next writes, “For traditionalists, the transformation of the world is a consequence of making disciples of Jesus Christ, not the primary goal of the church. As people’s lives are transformed in discipleship, the world is changed.” I wonder if this is really an either/or proposition, or if the gospel is more both/and. We are to be used by God to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And we are to live the gospel, doing justice, practicing kindness, being the hands and feet of Christ in addressing the brokenness in our world. Centrists and most progressives I know believe we are to make disciples, and that authentic disciples will seek to be used by God to heal the world. The United Methodist Church, post separation, will continue to seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Tom mentions the merging of politics and religion on the part of some on the left. Tragically the same is often true among Christians on the right. Our faith should influence our politics. But it is easy for politics to co-opt our faith whether we are progressive, centrist or traditionalist.
The United Methodist Church is made up of both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and a whole lot of people somewhere in between. As we’ve become more politically polarized, this polarization has spilled into the church. Sadly, instead of being a force for unity and showing how we can live together, we have followed the world’s lead in embracing division, the opposite of what Jesus prayed for his followers the night before his death. (John 17:11)
Breakdown of the Church’s Governance and Fight or Separate?
Tom notes that some United Methodists in the US have ignored the Book of Discipline’s prohibitions forbidding same-gender marriage and the ordination of LGBT persons who are otherwise qualified candidates for ministry. Consequently, he asks if it is better for traditionalists to remain and fight or to separate. I think this is a good question. Progressives have been asking this question for decades. Centrists, by definition, are willing to live within a church that embraces traditionalists and progressives.
My experience is that there are two kinds of traditionalists in The United Methodist Church when it comes to same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons: 1.) Those who cannot continue in a church where any pastors officiate at same-sex marriage and where any annual conferences will ordain qualified LGBT candidates; and 2.) Those who feel they can remain in a denomination that allows for differences on marriage and ordination provided they are not required to violate their own convictions.
For those who believe that they cannot be in a denomination where any pastors, congregations, or annual conferences hold differing opinions and practices regarding same-sex marriage and ordination, Tom’s encouragement to separate is understandable. A proposal before the next General Conference offers a gracious exit.
I’ve suggested that the deep divides that Tom sees between the two sides are, in the end, primarily about how we interpret scripture regarding same-sex relationships and how God looks at his LGBT children. Lambrecht and others envision a new Methodist denomination that is clear that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” one in which same-sex marriages are not accepted or permitted, and in which qualified gay and lesbian candidates for ministry will not be ordained. This new movement would seem, therefore, to be a church exclusively for traditionalists.
Meanwhile, we envision that the United Methodist Church that continues after Lambrecht’s new movement forms, will include traditionalists, centrists and progressives. It will continue to embrace the historic essentials of the Christian faith as found in our current doctrinal standards. It will be a church that sees the Bible as our primary source for what we believe and how we practice our faith, interpreted with the aid of tradition, experience, and reason. It will be a denomination and movement that holds together evangelism and social justice as both essential to the mission of God’s people. It will offer authentic Christian community, opportunities to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ, and a connectional ministry by which we serve together as Christ’s hands and feet in mission both locally and globally.
But The United Methodist Church will be distinct from Lambrecht's new Methodism by removing the language and policies about the “practice of homosexuality” from our Discipline thus allowing pastors to determine who they marry and annual conferences to determine who they will ordain.