The second largest Christian denomination in the USA, with roughly half of its 13million global members living in the United States, has agreed to split over the issue of same-sex marriage.The United Methodist Church, a denomination long home to a wide mix of theological opinion, has been experiencing tensions for decades. The split, which has been a long time in coming, is the inevitable outcome of long-lasting institutional reluctance to maintain doctrinal clarity. It will take formal effect after the denomination’s General Conference in May.
Why did it take so long? Probably because theologically conservative United Methodists were doing everything they could to try to bring about reformation and renewal within their denomination. And, whilst upholding the historic theology of the church, they were trying not to appear divisive in the face of unrelenting progressive activism.
Last February it appeared that the conservatives had gained a decisive victory. At a fractious General Conference in St Louis, 53 per cent of church leaders and lay members voted to tighten the ban on same-sex marriage. The GC restated the historic Christian position upheld throughout the existence of the denomination and declared that ‘the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching’.
Yet less than a year later the conservatives are leaving the denomination in the hands of the revisionists. Like other denominations, the United Methodist Church has been caught by what Bradley Longfield in his history of 20th century Presbyterian conflict describes as a denominational trichotomy of Fundamentalist, Modernists and Moderates.
Defeated in their attempts to allow openly homosexual clergy and the celebration of same-sex marriage, the modernists in the denomination refused to give up. These progressives were determined to make the denomination conform to their unbiblical worldview. Some even officiated at same sex marriages in open defiance of the denomination’s Book of Discipline.
In the UMC, as with other mainline denominations, the modernists on their own were not strong enough to take over. They were, however, able to co-opt the moderates who, in the name of non-judgementalism and charity, were unwilling to remove the modernists for their doctrinal deviations.
As with the Presbyterians last century, so with the Methodists this century: denominational splits occur because the moderates are reluctant to draw clear doctrinal lines and make them stick. Wedded to a principle of unity based on the visible church, the great uncertain middle is more concerned with holding the denominational organisation together than with keeping a clear denominational commitment to historic Christianity.
Being concerned above all with maintaining visible unity, the moderates were willing to allow the denomination to move in a liberal direction. The result is that, following the pattern in other denominations, it is the conservatives who are leaving the UMC. If, as seems likely, the majority of the denomination’s congregations in the United States will remain in the existing United Methodist Church we will witness another mainstream denomination shrinking into progressive irrelevance.
Accused of schismatic tendencies the conservatives, although winning 53 per cent of a vote which defeated theological revisionism, have left the UMC for valid reasons. They came to the reluctant conclusion that the modernisers were relentless and would never give up in their intention of rewriting Christianity, and that the moderates, with an eye on the surrounding culture, would never deal decisively with the issue.
The Evangelical, orthodox, conservative and traditionalist Christians in the United Methodist Church realised that they would inevitably find themselves in a denomination which was moving in an ever more progressive theological direction. Conservatives came to the inevitable conclusion that if they remained in the UMC, then they were inevitably going to be a part of a denomination that did have openly homosexual clergy and celebrated same-sex marriage.
The issue for conservatives was should they stay in, and remain a part of an increasingly apostate denomination thereby condoning its unbiblical stance, or should they leave? In obedience to their consciences they left.
A denomination which refuses to take decisive action to protect itself and its members by removing those who openly contradict and seek to reject the faith of the church will find itself without a distinctively Christian faith. It will emerge as a weak and continually shrinking expression of the morals and understanding of the world with a surface gloss of acceptable piety.
The sad lesson for theological conservatives is that once a denomination, for any length of time, accommodates theological and moral liberalism, it is almost never brought to reformation.