SOME LAST THOUGHTS BEFORE GENERAL CONFERENCE
By Riley Case
The specially called General Conference of the United Methodist Church is only a few days away. The conference will meet in St. Louis February 23-26. The issues are much bigger than just whether or not the church will ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals. The question has to do with whether or not United Methodism will continue to stand within the mainstream of the historic Christian faith through our Wesleyan heritage or whether it will declare for a reconstructed religion after the fashion of those who call themselves progressives.
There is no question where The Confessing Movement stands—it is with the historic faith. From its very beginning in 1994 The Confessing Movement has affirmed Jesus Christ as Son, Savior and Lord. Several of our board members and supporters will attend the conference as delegates. Others of us will be at the conference to distribute materials, meet with delegates including African and Filipino, offer support and to interpret back to our constituents by email what is taking place at the conference.
Here are some last-minute thoughts before the conference.
Our problems will not be solved with the 2019 General Conference, no matter what decisions are made.
If the One Church Plan passes the United Methodist Church will lose big time. Approval of the One Church Plan would be a victory for the gay advocacy lobbies, both within the church and within secular society on their way to rewriting the codes of sexual morality in American (and perhaps world-wide) culture. In America individuals and churches will leave the denomination, whether there is provision for a gracious exit or not. We should learn from what has happened in other denominations when Biblical standards in regard to human sexuality have been compromised. In the city of Kokomo, IN, where I pastored for ten years and now live retired, the first church in the community to suffer was the United Church of Christ. The local congregation lost a big portion of its members and eventually disaffiliated from the denomination. When the Presbyterian Church changed its standards the local Presbyterian Church left the denomination and is now embroiled in a lawsuit over property. Two ELCA Lutheran churches had to merge in order to stay viable after both congregations lost members over denominational shift on human sexuality. In the county a Friends Church left the Yearly Meeting and a Mennonite Church disaffiliated from the conference and lost members. In the past several years three local mega-churches have passed 1,000 in attendance helped in part by refugees from mainline churches turned progressive. We have nine local UM churches. I don’t know about local churches but I have had several families tell me they will leave if the church compromises on sexual morality.
But it is unlikely that the One Church Plan will pass.
Despite the hard-lobbying efforts of a number of bishops and boards and agencies and institutional big names, there are simply too many solid traditional Christians in the denomination who care too much about the church to allow it to be taken over by alien ideologies. What is quite possible is that the Traditional Plan or the Modified Traditional Plan will pass. At the moment this is the best of the seriously considered options. But if so this will not solve our problems. Progressives are unhappy now and will be more so if one of the Traditional Plans pass. Approval of the historic stance of the church, given the present toxic climate, will not bring graciousness, commitment to the church’s witness, or a greater appreciation for the church’s understanding of Scriptural authority. We can expect more angry blogs, more defiance of church law and, no doubt, an effort to bring all the issues back at the 2020 General Conference. Bishops will not be converted, or even influenced by General Conference votes. Furthermore, the church will not have addressed other of its serious problems. The same bishops who did their best to undermine the Traditional Plan will still be in place. The same bloated bureaucracy will still be in place. The same seminaries will still be in place. The University Senate, with its tendency to be biased against evangelical seminaries will still be in place. The same progressive caucuses that cry victimization and exclusivism and homophobia and hatred will still be in place. This will be a real test of whether the church can be the church, and whether any form of connectionalism will still hold us together.
What if no plan passes at the General Conference?
It is conceivable that the church is presently so divided that none of the major plans will garner enough support to pass the General Conference. In other words, the church will be back to where it was even before the 2016 General Conference. Then, it may be recalled, the General Conference was on the verge of passing legislation that was affirming of the church’s historic stances on human sexuality. At the same time it was revealed that informal conversations were taking place around the matter of amicable separation. In alarm, strong voices called for the conference not to vote on any legislation dealing with human sexuality and encouraged bishops and a commission to find some "new and better way forward” so that the church could stay united. Their “new and better way forward” is what faces us at the moment.
Where, then, is there hope?
Our hope, of course, is in a great God. It might be that the church will have to consider some options that are not at the present being seriously considered. When it was revealed in 2016 that even at the General Conference informal talks were taking place that might result in an amicable separation, there was a surprising amount of interest. The interest was not from bishops and boards and agencies and institutional types, but from persons who were coming to the realization that our present situation of criticizing and accusing and mistrusting one another is not in the Spirit of Christ. If shared values and beliefs are necessary for groups to carry out their mission then out of love and respect for one another we ought to be willing to grant the freedom for groups to go separate ways for the sake of spreading the gospel.
That, of course, is only one option. Perhaps when faced with the possibility of separation there might be a renewed desire to consider more seriously The Connectional Conference Plan, or some variation of it. Several of those plans have been given some form by individuals and small groups.
Whatever takes place The Confessing Movement and the other evangelical renewal groups will stand together to offer counsel, encouragement and options for individuals and local churches as we begin the next chapter of United Methodism. We believe God is not through with us yet.
What then can each of us do? Pray that God will open up a way that is pleasing to Him. Tell our Baptist or independent church friends who are criticizing the UM Church that God has done great things through Methodism and will continue to do so yet. Encourage and support our local church which may be facing some difficult decisions.
Heavenly Father, we pray for our United Methodist Church, that we may be open to your leading for a true Way Forward. Give us love for one another. Take away our anxiety and our tendency to want to criticize others. Give us love for one another. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.