The following remarks were delivered by UMAction Director John Lomperis to the UMAction Steering Committee on April 2, 2013.
Shortly before Christmas, I was honored to accept and formally begin my work as your new director of the UMAction program of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
America’s second-largest Protestant denomination appears to be at an exciting, historic turning point. Rev. Karen Booth, our UMAction Advisory Board member and longtime friend, perhaps said it best when she announced earlier this year that “The United Methodist Church has ‘turned a corner’ in its decades-long battle over human sexuality!”
We praise God for how the 2012 General Conference affirmed our biblical teaching statement on sexual morality by a significantly larger margin than at the previous General Conference. After this, sexually liberal activists, for perhaps the first modern General Conference ever, gave up on even trying to “win” on other specific pet causes of theirs, such as allowing church blessings of same-sex unions and permitting our clergy to be sexually active outside of marriage.
The great shift away from the failed experiment of oldline Protestant liberalism was also seen on other issues. In several instances, lefty political pronouncements received remarkably less support than they would have at previous General Conferences. We enacted a new super-majority rule that sets the bar higher for future General Conferences adopting far-left political resolutions. We made great progress on other issues in committee.
Now more and more United Methodists on all sides are acknowledging that our denomination’s formal adherence to biblical sexual morality – which not even Adam Hamilton could liberalize – is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future, particularly as our membership explodes in Africa while collapsing in our most theologically radical regions. The votes just aren’t there.
Shortly after what was dubbed “the most conservative General Conference in history,” the heads of the two main liberal caucuses resigned somewhat abruptly, with one of them leaving the apparently lost cause of the UMC for a small, largely gay denomination. Over the past year, there has been a mushrooming of talk of those who refuse to submit to Scriptural teaching leaving the United Methodist Church. As we speak, two of the most radicalized annual conferences are studying structural alternatives for liberal United Methodists. A tone of desperation was indicated by one liberal caucus figure’s rather unrealistic suggestion that instead of leaving the UMC, United Methodist liberals should stay and shift the balance of power by working to merge our denomination back into the Episcopal Church! Just last week, I saw that the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN), the main caucus pushing sexual liberalism, completed a massive survey which found, among other things, that half of its own constituency was “done waiting 4 more years” and want RMN to redirect its energies towards the formation of a new, liberal split-off denomination.
There are many other encouraging signs for the future of the United Methodist Church. Asbury Seminary continues to educate more new United Methodist clergy than any other school. For the first time in recent memory, the University Senate recently added a non-UMC seminary to its approved list: evangelical Seattle Pacific Seminary in the heart of the Western Jurisdiction. Among official UMC seminaries, United is undergoing a remarkable revolution towards orthodoxy while its enrollment skyrockets. As United Methodism continues to grow in Africa, faithful Africans are finally finding more positions in denominational leadership. There is widespread acceptance of the fact that we simply can no longer afford the huge size of our bloated, top-heavy denominational hierarchy. Meanwhile, UMAction, thanks to the financial, prayer, and volunteer support of the brothers and sisters in this room and our friends across the country, continues keeping up the pressure for reform, shining the holy light of accountability and building strategic partnerships for continuing the UMC’s positive trajectory, doing important work no one else is doing.
But now is the not the time for orthodox believers in the United Methodist Church to sit back, relax, and break out the sparkling apple cider. Our corner-turning still needs to be secured against some major challenges.
Externally, the sexual revolution continues its rapid, destructive progress in American culture while our churches are vulnerable to these ever-shifting sands right outside their doors. And we are already seeing the beginnings of the coercive arm of government being used to pressure Christian ministries into abandoning Scriptural teaching.
Internally, there remains a very vocal, well-funded minority who feel committed to staying and fighting bitterly within a denomination whose tradition they reject and whose core doctrine they despise. Heterodox caucuses are already organizing for the 2016 General Conference.
For a sober look at what we are up against, I urge you to read my four-part exposé, “Why Was the 2012 General Conference So Unproductive and Dysfunctional?” which appeared on our website late last year. It uncovers the true story of the Machiavellian ways in which the liberal caucuses, with help from our bishops, hijacked the 2012 General Conference. In practical terms, this means that we won historic committee endorsements of petitions to establish greater accountability for general agencies, end our denomination’s scandalous affiliation with the extremist Religions Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), inject some much-needed balance to official UMC statements on the Arab-Israeli conflict, open the doors for congregational women’s ministries not affiliated with United Methodist Women, rewrite the Discipline’s statement on the Outlerian quadrilateral to make clear that Scripture is our primary source and criterion for doctrine, and defending pastoral discretion in church membership. Liberals saw that they probably did not have the votes to stop such petitions in the full General Conference and so cynically killed these reforms by preventing them from ever coming to a plenary vote.
For now, entrenched, corrupt leaders remain in their places of denominational power, and seem hell-bent on continuing their business as usual of abusing the name and resources of our denomination to promote partisan, secular, leftist political agendas while opposing the very United Methodist values they are paid to promote. We still see a revolving-door staff and leadership relationship between our apportionment-funded denominational agencies and destructive liberal caucus. The General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) continues to violate the Discipline with impunity. The upper echelons of denominational leadership continue to dramatically over-represent the tiny, radicalized Western Jurisdiction while dramatically under-representing Africans and U.S. evangelicals. Our bishops, for the most part, continue to shrink back from providing the courageous, principled Christian leadership our denomination so desperately needs. And our apportionment-funded seminaries continue to be spared effective accountability, so that we have such embarrassments as Claremont School of Theology talking about removing the cross from its chapel for fear of offending participants in the Buddhist, Jain, and Islamic religious services being held there.
I am often asked why all these issues with general conferences, agencies, bishops, seminaries, etc. matter. Why can’t we just focus on preaching the Gospel in our local churches and not worry about denominational corruption and reform? Why is the reform work of UMAction worth anyone’s prayers, worth self-sacrificial financial support to make possible, worth taking the time to stay informed, and worth expending volunteer energy?
I would never denigrate the importance of local Gospel preaching.
But the struggle for denominational reform matters, because, quite simply, the God Whose ambassadors we are called to be matters.
Here is a quote from sociologist Peter Berger:
“The public face of the churches does matter because the Christian church, by its very mission, must be a public institution. Christianity, as we frequently hear, is not just a personal, private affair. It constitutes a community, which has a historical and a social location. National headquarters matter, and they must be taken seriously – perhaps more seriously than they take themselves, for it is the face of Christ that is being publicly distorted.”
Frankly, we would not be very good ambassadors of Christ if we were not committed to seeing that the truth about Him and His teachings is supported by our denomination’s agencies, taught in its seminaries, and proclaimed in its pulpits.
Secondly, UMAction’s work of denominational reform matters because people matter. At last year’s General Conference, our liberal caucus friends rather dramatically displayed the harsh, self-righteous, bullying, and thoroughly unloving treatment of other people that inevitably springs from their secularized gospel of self-affirmation. If we care about people, we must care about their being mistreated by corrupt liberal United Methodist leaders. If we care about people, we must care about honoring our bonds of Christian fellowship even across the boundary of death with those past generations who have bequeathed great resources in the trust that they would be perpetually devoted to promoting Methodist Christianity, rather than false gospels that are Unitarian Universalism in all but name. And as evangelical, Wesleyan Arminians, we should be especially concerned that when an unsaved spiritual seeker wanders into any one of the thousands of United Methodist congregations across the country or throughout the world, that what she hears and experiences there will actually help draw her towards the light of salvation rather than perversely encourage spiritual corruption.
Thirdly, the work of denominational reform is not separable from the ministry in our local churches. I love that the United Methodist Church is a connectional church, in which we have no right to say that the problems in other UMC churches are not our problems. And sooner or later, the great denominational struggles in which UMAction is a key player will touch even the most isolated, conservative United Methodist congregation, as a new pastor is appointed who is a typical graduate of the United Methodist seminary he attended, as young members go off to college and United Methodist campus ministries, as denominationally issued curricula, resolutions, and Social Principles are looked to for guidance, and as members and people in the local mission field base their opinions of what United Methodism is all about on the latest media-reported scandal from our bishops or general agencies.
But I dream of a different day for United Methodism. Just imagine if anytime we saw the cross-and-flame logo on any of the tens of thousands of United Methodist congregations, we could trust that the clergy and other leaders there were committed and submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture in all areas of life. Just imagine if we could actually trust that the apportionments from our church offering plates would be used for Christian ministry and never be funneled into far-left secular political groups. Just imagine if one day all of our remaining general agencies and seminaries were thoroughly devoted to consistently acting with integrity, supportively equipping congregations for ministry, and promoting orthodox United Methodist doctrine and values. Just imagine if God once again so richly blessed us in harvesting new souls into His Kingdom that other evangelical denominations eagerly looked to the United Methodist Church for guidance in effective evangelistic ministry.
We are obviously not yet at that day. But two days after Easter seems like an especially appropriate time to remember that we serve a great triune God through whom all things are possible! We certainly have our work cut out for us. But the God Who entrusted us with profound theological truths our world needs to hear, Who has been behind numerous church renewal movements throughout church history, and Who is the God of atoning self-sacrifice and bodily resurrection is with us and will be with us in the many difficult challenges and exciting corner-turnings ahead of us!