By Rowland S. Buck
I have been a United Methodist my whole life. My great-great-great grandfather was a Methodist preacher. My father was a Methodist preacher. I have been born and raised in the Methodist Church.
So, the schism we experience now, the divide that has been building for several decades, is heart-wrenching to me. In mid-2016, after the last General Conference, I started hearing about the Wesleyan Covenant Association from United Methodist pastors I had grown to admire and respect, people like Maxie Dunnam, Jeff Greenway and others.
I have heard more than one person level the charge that the Wesleyan Covenant Association is a divisive group that should be avoided. Most of us want to avoid a confrontation and will remain silent so as to not drive wedges or choose sides. I was leery of the same thing.
I do not want to tear the church a part. I do not want to be part of the problem, I want to be part of the solution. At times I have bitten my tongue and tried to keep the peace. I have also allowed myself to be drawn into unproductive arguments to my frustration, and even embarrassment. So why would I join and support the Wesleyan Covenant Association?
After the 2016 General Conference, I, like many others, came to the obvious conclusion that we were in schism. We have ordained clergy who either did not believe their ordination vows when they took them or have since changed their minds about them without any accountability. We have consecrated bishops that had no intention of upholding our Discipline, even defying it.
We have allowed clergy, bishops, local churches, annual conferences, and even an entire jurisdiction to promote doctrines contrary to our Discipline with no consequences. We are divided. The name “United Methodist” has become an oxymoron.
The Church that nurtured me in the faith from baptism to ordination into the daily work of ministry is in trouble. I have been focusing on the trouble. I was guilty of negativity and complaining. I was focused more on what’s wrong than what’s right, letting those attitudes become my default.
That is not what I want! I want to call the church back to her first love. I want to promote faithfulness to the doctrines of the church that explain to us the transforming grace of God. I also want a better vision of the future.
If the next 40 years of the United Methodist Church are to be like the last 40, then count me out. I want something different. I want to hear somebody talk about becoming an authentically Wesleyan, orthodox, Spirit-filled, Jesus-loving, Kingdom-seeking, disciple-making movement, one God can use to transform the world.
That’s what I heard in October of 2016 at the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s first gathering in Chicago. I heard hope. I heard the articulation of a vision for a vibrant future, not just for a troubled denomination, but for a troubled world.
In the words of William J. Abraham, it is the vision of “a Methodism that will be missionary oriented, open to the full working of the Holy Spirit, unapologetically orthodox, sacramentally robust, and committed to justice and the care of the needy.” (From the forward to A Firm Foundation: Hope and Vision for a New Methodist Future, p. ix.)
I know there are those who disagree with that vision – or at least the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s articulation of it. That’s fine. I’m not going to be in a bad mood about it. I don’t want to argue or debate it.
I have realized I want something different. I want something that feels like a heart strangely warmed. I want something that has the power to give the world hope.
I want to know my sins are forgiven and to offer that transformation to others. I want to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land. And I want a church that supports those ideas. In Chicago in October of 2016, for the first time in a long time, I gathered with over 1,000 Methodists that wanted the same thing.
That’s why I joined the Wesleyan Covenant Association. If we describe something you want too, I invite you to join us.
By Buford “Boo” Hankins
Coming away from the 2018 Holston Annual Conference, I was hoping to have had an opportunity for the conference as a whole to give its reaction to the Council of Bishops’ proposal to the special General Conference in February 2019. We did have a long presentation from Alice Williams, a member of the Commission on a Way Forward (COWF), who praised the so-called “One Church Plan” as the best option for the future of the United Methodist Church.
She said their discernment process was like an 18-month-long pregnancy. Well, if that is what it was, my feeling is their work was stillborn by the time it passed through the Council of Bishops. I do not think the One Church Plan has a chance of succeeding.
I wish we had at annual conference a chance to support or oppose the One Church Plan. The closest we came to this was to vote on the two resolutions from members of Church Street UMC supporting the plan and the removal of certain language in the Discipline.
The fact that both of these resolutions were never considered in their original form gives a hint to the sense of the conference. I have a feeling that if my friend Tom Lambrecht, also a member of the COWF, had been invited to give us his assessment of the committee’s findings, the response would have been different. He spoke at the Iowa Wesleyan Covenant Association during their Annual Conference. Alice Williams’ identity as part of the LGBT community certainly colored her presentation.
I appreciate that Alice Williams mentioned she had talked with some Africans who were concerned that the church’s position about homosexuality could put their members at risk. Her flippant response bothered me, however.
I have served as a missionary and district superintendent in both West Africa and East Africa (although never with a $100,000 salary). I can tell you that it is not an insignificant thing for a church to embrace deviant sexual practices.
In an April 4, 2014, BBC interview, the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev. Justin Welby, said that a Church of England decision to accept gay marriage would be “absolutely catastrophic for Christians in troubled countries.” Anglicans in countries such as South Sudan, Nigeria and Pakistan are in danger as a result of liberal positions taken by the leaders of churches in the West, he said.
Archbishop Welby said that he had visited a mass grave containing 369 bodies in South Sudan, where some people believed “if we leave a Christian community here we will be made to become homosexual, and so we will kill all the Christians.” There are still 74 countries where homosexuality is illegal, 33 in Africa. To dismiss the legitimate safety concerns of African leaders while also ignoring sound Biblical reasoning is callous and condescending.
We need to hear from our African brothers and sisters. I have heard from many Africans that they are thankful that western missionaries brought the Gospel of Jesus Christ to their lands. It is that liberating Gospel that helped put an end to tribal slavery, the damage of polygamy, death of children abandoned because of birth defects, and many more problems.
Do we not believe in the Gospel message that “the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin”? Quite frankly, our African friends are embarrassed that we are even talking about this subject. The United Methodist Church is growing in Africa because Africans have accepted the teachings of the Bible, and that includes the teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman. If we abandon that biblical principle, I believe the Africans will abandon the UMC—and I will stand with them.
Our Council of Bishops—I have called them the Council of Cowards because they are afraid to tell us how they voted after receiving the COWF recommendations—have failed the church. They tried to limit the General Conference to considering only the One Church Plan, but the Judicial Council rescued us by allowing other plans to be considered.
We have bishops, district superintendents and pastors who are what someone called “functional Universalists.” Their beliefs do not match our Wesleyan adherence to Scripture and nearly 2,000 years of Christian tradition.
There are plenty of other denominations whose theology and practices exactly match theirs. It is their defiance of the Discipline and their ordination vows that has brought us to this crisis. I am tired of being accused of being disloyal or “unchristian” because I honor the sacred vows I made at ordination.
Our bishops have a poor track record of even holding their own accountable. When we have bishops, pastors and whole annual conferences in open defiance of our covenant and Discipline, we can no longer pretend we are united. Our unity has been shattered by disobedience.
I am thankful we will have an opportunity to speak to the delegates to the 2019 General Conference in the coming days, but I wonder why this had to be added at the end of the conference rather than being a natural part of our delegates’ preparation for General Conference. Was there a deliberate attempt to limit input and response to the bishop’s proposal?
I look forward to the opportunity to express my opinion at these listening sessions, and I hope others will also speak up.
Buford “Boo” Hankins is a retired elder in the Holston Conference and a former missionary to Africa.
By Rowland S. Buck
Do United Methodists believe that orthodoxy is optional? Is it a core value of ours, in spite of our clearly defined doctrinal standards, that it is okay to believe whatever you want or need to believe about the Bible, God, and living out the Christian faith?
I think with annual conferences in open schism against our Discipline, and our last General Conference brought to a standstill, and the constant debate about human sexuality, and the Council of Bishops endorsing the “One Church Plan,” we would have to say, at the very least, that we are willing to consider “multiple orthodoxies” as a viable alternative for moving forward. But is that really a path to unity?
Ephesians 4 speaks to the unity of the church that is found in Christ:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1-6 (NRSV)
Paul calls us to “make every effort maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We are to make this effort because the reality we experience since Christ is Lord is unity: there is one church (the Church that names Christ as Lord); there is one faith (the faith that believes Christ is Lord); there is one Spirit (the Spirit of the Lord Jesus). We maintain the unity of the Spirit by clinging to the reality of Jesus and the oneness He brings. This unity comes to us on His terms – He calls each of us to a singular hope in one God. So there are not multiple ways or standards to be in relationship to God – there is one, Christ. This is made clear later in the chapter:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
Notice that the leadership God provides through the gifts Jesus gives is for equipping the saints for the work of ministry. The equipping of the saints and their subsequent work of ministry builds up the body of Christ for the end that we all share the same faith and knowledge. How do you measure that unity and knowledge? When is one mature? When the stature or the standard of Christ is met. In other words, the unity in which we participate is each of us measuring up to Christ as we are equipped and participate in ministry. Without Christ, there is no unity.
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… Ephesians 4:14-15
To participate in the unity of Christ, we must achieve a level of maturity that is rooted in truth, which is why the Church has doctrine in the first place. We do not come to Jesus on our own terms picking and choosing what we want to believe; or worse yet, choosing any new notion that might come along. We come to Jesus on His terms as expressed in the apostolic teaching of the church down through the ages. Believing and speaking the truth in love is how we grow up in every way into Christ. And as we grow up into Christ, we are unified by the Spirit of Christ.
The current crisis of the United Methodist Church is a crisis of faith in the orthodox doctrine of the church, a doctrine that has long helped us come to know Christ and grow into His likeness. We must reclaim the core doctrines of our church that define our faith and learn once again to speak the truth in love. The pain our denomination is experiencing is a failure to lovingly speak the truth of our faith, holding each other accountable to that truth so that we would each be equipped and grow to the measure of Christ. This is the process that leads to entire sanctification as we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
John Wesley felt that the people called Methodists were raised up to propagate the doctrine of entire sanctification. The beauty of the Wesleyan revival is the organizational genius of Wesley to gather people in societies and classes and bands to give structure to promote the work of grace in the lives of the Methodists. This common pursuit of holiness fueled the fires of the Methodist Revival up to the turn of the 20th century.
What would it look like if we recaptured this pursuit of holiness? What if we began to meet to hold each other accountable to God’s work in us? What if we used our gifts to assure each other of the power of the transforming power of Jesus Christ—that no sin is beyond forgiveness, no habit beyond the power of transformation, no life beyond reclamation. What if we didn’t settle for a redefinition of sin, but an unyielding dependence on God to deliver us from it?
I think the crisis of the United Methodist Church in the present moment is also a great opportunity for us to reclaim our orthodox and Wesleyan heritage and chart a new course into the future “to spread Scriptural holiness across the land.”
Rowland S. Buck is an ordained elder in the Scenic South District and an acting director of the Holston WCA.
By Chuck Griffin
Today I’m donning my old public relations hat, the one I wore before going into professional ministry. I feel the need to point out a practical problem with the Council of Bishops’ recommended “One Church Plan,” a problem anyone, liberal or conservative, should recognize.
The problem is rooted in what corporate communications people call “branding.” When I explained branding to my corporate colleagues, I would employ a simple example. I would put an object like this in a corner of the room:
No one ever had trouble identifying the object, even when empty and viewed from the side as far as 30 feet away. That’s because Coca-Cola is one of the best-branded products in the world, perhaps the best. The calligraphy-style lettering, the shape of the bottle, the color of the label—consumers immediately associate all that with what’s inside.
The rules of branding apply anywhere people see a marketable name or logo. Branding doesn’t require a specific product you can hold in your hand; institutions of all kinds need branding.
If people think well of your logo and name, someone did a good job by delivering a quality product and associating it with images and ideas in a clear way. If people are confused about your product or institution, something has gone wrong.
For example, let’s say every third time you drank a bottle labeled Coca-Cola, you found yourself getting a mouthful of Grape Nehi. Confusion would set in. You might decide you don’t trust the Coca-Cola name or logo, particularly if you don’t like Grape Nehi.
The United Methodist Church already has allowed tremendous damage to its brand in recent years as it has offered wildly different theological flavors under one name. Schismatic clergy and entire conferences change the mix by defying the Discipline and our traditional understanding of scriptural authority, and the people in charge cannot or will not stop them.
As Christians, we understand this is a much more serious matter than whether some fizzy brown liquid gets sold. We believe we are engaging with people because their eternal lives are at stake. Competing theological views offered under the same church name negatively impact the basic mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.
In three appointments, I have seen how communities can be confused about what the local UM church represents theologically. And yes, the people around us do debate what’s going on in that building marked with a cross and flame. Neighbors may even warn people to stay away, citing the words or actions of a prior UM pastor while not understanding that the next pastor may have a very different theological stance.
People looking for a church home tell me they are unsure what they’ll find when they walk through the doors of a UM building for the first time. Some have heard of the historic Wesleyan movement and how it took people back to the Bible as the basis for living, but they’ve also seen news stories about homosexual marriages and ordinations in the United Methodist Church and think these are approved practices.
I even have known regular visitors who were very comfortable with me as a pastor, but declined to join the church, fearing I would be moved and the next pastor would be liberal. I assume my liberal colleagues have the same problem playing out in the opposite direction.
Some will argue the deceptively named “One Church Plan” will help with branding, but it will only make the branding problem worse. Nobody trusts a “One Size Fits All” label.
Traveling down the bishops’ recommended path, how would we communicate to our key audience what a particular church’s theological stance is? Remember, individuals looking for a church home engage with us at the local level. Would our common name and logo have subtitles for each church sign—”A Biblical Church” or “A Progressive Church,” perhaps? Would we fly little flags to distinguish ourselves?
Whatever the approach, we would be driving our branding efforts to a very complicated level of communication. Complicated brands fail. In a busy world with lots of choices, people don’t have time to parse a brand’s possible meanings.
If the 2019 General Conference takes us down the traditionalist path, with new means of enforcement put in place, I think the United Methodist brand can be saved. We would have a lot of work to do if we are to recover from the damage that has been done, but the brand is salvageable because we can re-root ourselves in our long history.
A traditionalist decision also should give the theological liberals the right to exit, build their own brand and see who blesses it. I personally am very curious to see how an overtly progressive denomination free of orthodox influence would fare.
Chuck Griffin is an ordained elder serving in the Hiwassee District and an acting director of Holston WCA.
Our WCA display has been well-received at Holston Annual Conference thus far. Lots of people have stopped by to seek information regarding individual memberships and church memberships. We’ve even had a few folks sign up on the spot, and we’ve lost count of how may people are wearing a WCA tag on their badges.
We’re getting a consistent comment: “Thank you so much for being here.” We’ve begun to realize the simple presence of orthodox voices is proving to be very important at this annual conference.
Please keep all of your WCA volunteers in prayer. Special thanks to Connie Griffin, who has stayed with the display table many hours while others have been in session.