On proposals to split the denomination

Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrong, some divorces right. But it must also be understood, I think, that the possibility of breaking a vow can tell us nothing of what is meant by making and keeping one. Divorce is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its proposed results.

— Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage”

I’ve been waiting for Ben Witherinton III to finish his four-part response to retired Bishop Richard Sano’s call for what he and others in the United Methodist Church call biblical obedience.

Here are Witherington’s responses.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

In the last part, Witherington makes his case for a split in the UMC. He ends his final post this way:

So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue. The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.

In the piece, Witherington uses the analogy of marriage and divorce, and in all these controversies I do find myself reflecting on the nature of marriage vows. I ask myself in grief how people can break their vows of covenant while presiding over the vows of marriage.

But I also hear myself talking about the way marriage is treated in our country and culture. Marriage, we are told by the courts of law, is a contract entered into for mutual benefit and terminated at the whim of those who entered into it. That may be the secular meaning of marriage, but that definition of marriage has nothing to do with God.

Christian marriage is a lifelong bond that is not intended to be ever broken. The vow to love until death does not include small print that says “unless we get sick of each other.” Yes, Christians divorce, but only because we are fallen and hard-hearted people. It is always a tragedy. Divorce, Wendell Berry wrote, is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its possible outcomes.

And so, I find myself unable to suggest divorce as a solution to our crisis in the United Methodist Church. Not over this question. Even though we’ve had — and likely will have — some fights that damage the walls and break lamps.

I am sick of the fighting. I am outraged by the politics of it all. I am heart sick over the name calling and the distrust that runs deep in our connection. I believe some of my brothers and sisters are teaching doctrines that imperil the happiness and salvation of souls. That for many is a reason to break fellowship. I understand why people feel this way, and I worry that perhaps there is some hypocrisy in me that I am not ready to join the ones calling for a split.

I don’t have a good response to that charge. I guess, in the end, I hope and trust that God will overcome the mistakes of human beings. In end, I am too aware of my own flaws and failures to eliminate the possibility that I am wrong. In the end, I am holding out hope that there is a coherent, biblical response that neither denigrates scripture nor forgets that mercy triumphs over judgement.

I pray that God makes right what I have done wrong in my ministry and has mercy on my mistakes and my failures. If I pray that God will do that for me, then I feel I must pray he will do the same for those with whom I disagree on these questions.

There are lines I could not cross. There are matters that amount to theological adultery. If the UMC became Unitarian Universalist, I would leave. But when I read Witherington’s call for a split, I find I am not ready to go where he summons. Maybe that is cowardice. Maybe it is hope. I cannot say. All I can report is this:

I’m not ready for divorce.

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28 thoughts on “On proposals to split the denomination

  1. Ben Witherington highlights what has become the repugnant nature of United Methodism: “dirty tricks” in our politics. Evil masquerading as good has the church in its grip at this present hour. You and I are being manipulated and abused in word and deed, and then derided in the blogosphere by the comic malice of these bad actors. “Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?” [Galatians 4:16]

  2. I am not sure the concept of marriage and divorce is an appropriate metaphor for what we are facing. It appears to me that we are facing an issue of church discipline. What metaphor might be employed I’ll leave to others. The crisis of the issue is that discipline has been undermined by various subversive actions. Jesus’ guidelines in Matthew 18:15ff are of little help because there is not a general consensus in the church. Jesus assumed that an offending person would not be able to employ subversive tactics to undermine the culture of the church. In I Corinthians 5, Paul had apostolic authority to stand against a church that was letting a situation “slide.” He rebuked the church for boasting (evidently of its liberty) in the face of immorality that was damaging to the body of Christ. He made a unilateral decision to excommunicate the offender. Such disciplinary measures in our denomination are now being subverted even by bishops, so that the due process of church procedures are short-circuited. These actions are combined with the consistent hammering of the gay party at the established policy of the church. The question now must be asked, “What is the price of going on like this?” I think we have to ask ourselves, “What is this present situation doing to the gospel of Jesus Christ?” I believe the answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second question. If the present situation is ruining the whole process of making disciples of Jesus Christ, then the price of going on like this is too high. The purpose of church discipline is not just to uphold policy. It is an adjunct to the building of the body of Christ. It should be an occasional necessity in the midst of otherwise positive activity. But, because of the ongoing subversion, it has now become an all-consuming centerpiece of church life (or death). Such a development is utterly destructive. For the sake of the gospel and for the sake of the body of Christ, there needs to be a separation of these two warring factions.

    1. Maybe the metaphor is not on the money. I picked up on it because Witherington used it.

      I don’t know the answer to the question of whether the current situation is undermining our mission. I say this because churches that have split and churches not beset by this crisis are also having all kinds of trouble spreading the gospel today.

      1. I would say your metaphor is perfect ..divorce being the only remedy given under extreme circumstance. Divorce, the last resort.

        I believe it was Christ who used the imagery and symbolism of the bridegroom and bride to teach the relationship of God and his people. That makes the imagery and symbolism perfect. The Eucharist is called the “marriage supper of the Lamb.
        Nuptial spices are myrrh and aloes. Wine is sometimes called the wine of the grape (Gen. 49:11). St Augustine referred to the gospel as the “good wine”. Jesus (God) and the disciples (representing the church symbolically) drink from the same cup sealing the covenant (contract) as is custom in the Jewish betrothal equal to marriage in the eyes of the Jew in Christ’s day.

  3. Thank you for this, John,

    I am not ready for divorce, either. If we think our “marriage” is difficult to manage, I don’t even want to think about the legal battles that will be waged should divorce be attempted. There is almost never such a thing as “amicable separation” unless the parties had not truly invested themselves in the other and in their commonlife first. Any divorce attorney or divorce judge will tell you that. It is an initial horrible sorrow (the divorce proceedings themselves) with hundreds of smaller sorrows trialing in its wake for years or decades to come. The best a good divorce attorney can usually do is try to get both parties to mitigate damages.

    We’re a denomination whose history has known the destructive power of a split down our geographic middle, the Mason-Dixon line. But perhaps we’ve forgotten the pain and contention that, in some senses, have not entirely left us even after our North/South reuniting in the 1930s. The jurisdictions stand as a lasting reminder that our regional differences were (and to some degree still are) so profound in the US that we cannot trust nor do we want bishops from “up yonder” or “down there” or “way out there” to serve in our episcopal areas except under extraordinary circumstances.

    We do care for each other across this connection. We have invested much in each other. So it just won’t do (and won’t work) for progressives to tell conservatives “I have no need of you, so go away” and more than for conservatives to say the same to progressives. The body of Christ in this Church, as I’ve experienced it, includes both. We need conservatives to keep us grounded in some areas, and progressives to keep us moving in others, and vice versa. We reject the giftedness and gifts God has placed among us at great peril should we seek to excise one or the other wholesale, as Ben Witherington’s proposal seems to do. Surgery is not the right medical approach to what ails our fellowship.Family therapy is a far better metaphor and method.

  4. My questions remains: What about all those LGBTQ children and youth growing up in conservative churches? After the split, what about them?
    It’s not solely about marriage.

    1. Could you expand on your thought?

      Do I hear you saying the conservatives needs to be driven out to protect children?

      1. No– right now, even in conservative UM churches there are a few progressives/liberals, or at least people who know being an LGBTQ person is not a “lifestyle choice”. A split would encourage any liberals remaining in that church to leave…. including clergy (who may be secretly affirming in a conservative church), and any seminarians (your non-Asbury types…who likely are affirming).
        There will still be LGBTQ children born into, and youth growing up in conservative churches, a split will solve nothing from this angle and years down the road, the conservative denomination will face LGBTQ children becoming LGBTQ adults in their denomination wanting equality…
        The “Conservative” denomination will still have LGBTQ children and youth growing up, but there will be few voices to tell them they’re precious and loved by God just the way they are. It’s about love, and suicide prevention (since LGBTQ suicide rates are far higher than straight and cisgender peers), and not solely about marriage equality (which isn’t just about marriage, but health insurance, dignity, partner access to hospitals, custody of children, freedom to live in peace, etc).
        After a split, there would still be LGBTI persecution in Africa by religious conservatives with Methodist ties (IRD, Good News), a need for someone to call out UM bishops who aren’t speaking out on state bills discriminating against LGBTQ people, and bishops who remain silent about the isolation of LGBTQ children and youth in conservative churches.
        40 years of schism and progressive/liberal flight, 40 years of homophobic, heterosexist language in the Book of Discipline hasn’t completely driven liberal/progressives out, but a de jure schism will.

  5. I think of a proposal as a detailed outline for a split to include real estate, employment terms, pensions(factoring in unfunded liabilities if any and accounting for the percentage contributed), health benefits, general agency oversight and a host of other things. Such a proposal would require working groups, negotiations, arbitration, process definition and so on. Unlike the split over slavery this would not go along geographical lines. Imagine five churches in a district with 50 deciding to leave. Who would be their DS? What happens to itinerancy? There are no easy answers. The UMC leadership has to consider the possible scenarios. 1. No split and we resolve our differences enough to reduce tensions. 2. We fail to resolve our differences and tensions increase until the fracturing begins. If number 2 is more likely then we need to manage the problem. a. Let the free for all begin and the courts will sort it all out. b. We figure out a method to part ways amicably.
    I do not see us resolving our differences. Nor have I heard of any group working seriously on a managed split.

  6. Events will likely outrun any attempt at a “managed split,” as Kevin puts it. It is no confidential secret bottled up in episcopal offices that progressive actors are REFUSING TO STOP their acts of disobedience. They’ve crossed the Rubicon. So the offended parties have no choice but to acquiesce or seek amicable separation.

      1. I think of amicable as staying out of the courts. There will of course be hard feelings all around but once we start calling in the lawyers it gets ugly.

  7. I am one who has grown tired of the fight and have been actively engaged in the debates, dialogues, discussions and holy conferencing long enough that I honestly do not see how The United Methodist Church can maintain present course and speed and be effective for the kingdom of God. With the ascendancy of Africa at General Conference, I do not see how the “votes” will change for many years. With the aggressive and strident approach of the minority that will accept nothing less than “full inclusion” and their willingness to employ divisive means to disrupt and derail General Conference and other parts of the connection, those votes and voices will not change for many years. I regret to say it, but I believe the time has come to admit we are no longer a united church, if we ever really were one. We should dissolve The United Methodist Church and form 2 or more separate denominations, dividing the assets like the property and children in a divorce. It is not helpful to say that the “other side” should leave. We should all weep as we walk away from The United Methodist Church. If we cannot summon the courage to do this, we should radically revise our connectional structure to allow for regional, even congregational differences on ordination and marriage. This will allow everyone to be in ministry as they believe the Holy Spirit leads them and we can stop beating and berating those who disagree with our understanding. God may then bless whomever God chooses to bless – perhaps even blessing all. But then this will radically redefine our understanding of what The United Methodist Church is or was

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