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Upholding biblical, orthodox, Wesleyan standards of belief and practice.

How Did We Get Here?

How Did We Get Here?

Jeff Greenway

“This is what the Lord says: ‘STAND at the crossroads and LOOK; ASK for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and WALK in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, “We will not walk in it.” I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But you said, ‘WE WILL NOT LISTEN.’” Jeremiah 6:16-17

Let me begin by saying—I love the “Big C” Church. It was born on Pentecost and is comprised of all the “little c” churches past, present and future.   The United Methodist Church is a “little c” church which is a small part of the “BIG C” church.   “Little c” churches like us are only significant to the extent we are a contributing part of the “BIG C” Church.   The “BIG C” Church is the physical presence of Jesus in this world. It transcends apparent dichotomies like Catholic and Protestant—clergy and laity—Baptist and Methodist—traditional and contemporary—priests and pastors—dunkers and sprinklers—and the various theological camps. The “BIG C” Church reaches across time and space—and holds firm even as empires rise and fall. The “BIG C” Church is bigger than you—bigger than me—bigger than we. This is the Church talked about in the Apostle’s Creed.

The Church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world when it lives its life in all of its unfettered glory among many peoples, nations, tribes and clans. Caring for the poor and broken. Befriending the hurting and marginalized. Naming sin while announcing grace. Reaching out and welcoming all kinds of people. Connecting them with God through faith in Jesus Christ. Nurturing persons to life transformation and mature discipleship. Sending Christ-followers out into the world in mission and witness. We are in the life transformation business. I love the Church and the way God is using it to bring change and transformation to individuals and entire cultures.

I also love the “little c” church that I am a part of. I am a cradle Methodist. I was eight years old when the United Methodist Church was formed, and it was in United Methodist congregations that I was welcomed and nurtured. It was here that I heard and experienced Wesley’s Way of Salvation. I received God’s prevenient grace through parents and others who loved me on God’s behalf before I knew there was a God who loved me. I sensed a growing dissonance that there was something wrong in the deepest part of my heart as I became convicted of my sin (not just particular acts, but a present condition). I experienced God’s justifying grace when I confessed my sin, asked for forgiveness and invited Jesus to be my Savior and Lord. I was thirteen, and would no longer live on the coattails of my parent’s faith. Saving faith in Jesus was mine—and it was nurtured and grown in the United Methodist Church.

It did not take me long to realize that my justification had not removed the bent toward sinning in my life—although I desperately wanted to overcome sins impact and influence on my life. The Holy Spirit began to bring various habits, actions, and even attitudes to my attention as less than God’s best for my life. I would wrestle, confess, ask for forgiveness, and God began to release me from the sin that had so easily entangled my heart. This was my introduction to sanctifying grace—realizing that God had accepted and forgiven me exactly where I was, but that God loved me too much to leave me that way. The Holy Spirit was immersing me into a lifetime of sanctifying grace—becoming more and more like Jesus.

As I continued to grow and be discipled by other United Methodists, I began to realize that the salvation Jesus offers and Wesley taught was not just about going to heaven someday. He contended we can experience full salvation here in the form of Christian perfection (sanctification). This is not about being sinless and perfect in performance, but rather about having our hearts so transformed that we can be made perfect in our love for God and neighbor—to be so open to the working of God’s grace and the influence of the Holy Spirit that we can be not only forgiven for our sin—but also be released from its control and influence in our lives. We can be changed. We can be transformed. We can become more and more like Jesus and live the life of love that Jesus lived. I have experienced sanctifying grace ever since my salvation at thirteen years of age, and the longer I walk with Jesus and the more I practice the means of grace, the more Christ-like I become in word and action. I am not perfect—but by God’s grace am moving on toward Christian perfection.

As United Methodists, we believe that our faith is not to be only personal—it is also lived out in community for a community. We are a people who have married our minds, hearts and hands together in service of Jesus in this world. So—when I person experiences the full salvation of Jesus—it begins to works itself out in the actions of one’s life. We are a people who balance acts of personal devotion and acts of mercy. Our individual witness of God’s transforming grace gives credibility to our witness to others in our lives as we name sin and announce grace as we call others to saving faith in Jesus. Our changed hearts also influence the way we act and react toward others. When Methodists come together we balance acts of piety and acts of justice. Our communities of faith put hands and feet to God’s grace as we reach out to a hurting world—like ministering with the poor and imagining no malaria.

This is the best of the “little c” United Methodist church—we marry changed hearts with serving hands and change the world. Our theology of grace capturing the full of what Wesley called the Way of Salvation, and where the fullness of this Gospel message is shared—the United Methodist Church is FOURISHING.

However, that is not the way things are in the United Methodist Church in the United Sates. We are a divided lot. We tend to bifurcate the Gospel into either a message of personal salvation or a message of social justice, but the truth is that the gift of the Wesleyan movement is a message of grace in salvation that forgives sin, changes hearts and lives and as a result begins to impact the culture around it. To divide the house guts the heart of our Wesleyan movement—and drains our movement of its power and unique message.

We are living in strange and troubling days as a United Methodist Church. During the last few months, we have seen an escalation of acts of ecclesial disobedience related to the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality. Since 1968, we have agreed to and engaged in a denominational decision-making process which has helped to determine the boundaries and nature of our connectional life in covenant together. However, deliberate acts of disobedience by clergy who have decided to come out as self-avowed, practicing homosexuals in defiance of our common covenant have revealed that we have individuals and constituencies within our covenant connection who have rejected our denominational decision-making process—in favor of one that is based upon the will of the individual person or congregation. Other efforts to move us from a connectional polity to one in which individual congregations can choose for themselves what they will and will not do related to human sexuality threatens to tear apart the fabric of our connection. In the weeks since General Conference significant numbers of individuals, bishops, Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry and entire Annual Conferences have taken actions which set them at odds with our denominational decision-making process and common covenant.

These developments are bewildering to many of us, and have led many of the folks that I share life and ministry with to ask—HOW DID WE GET HERE? The following is my attempt to give our present circumstance a historical and theological framework to help us understand the signs of our times, and perhaps navigate a way forward.

Conservatives and liberals have been part of the United Methodist Church from its very inception. The embracing of theological pluralism created a sort of big tent Methodism where a variety of theological expression was appreciated and valued. There was a sense of mutual appreciation and tolerance that this framework enabled. I can remember talking with some of my older, more liberal colleagues who would not agree with my more conservative, evangelical perspectives, but they would say there was room in their theology for me. It was a generous plurality whose limits had not yet been truly tested.

FOUR FOUNDATIONAL DEVELOPMENTS

In my opinion, the roots of this theological spectrum can be traced to at least four influential developments in the last 110 years of the Methodist movement in America. This first was the decision to allow the faculty of the seminaries to align themselves with the academic guild rather than as servants of the Church. Most of our older seminaries were started as institutions whose sole purpose was to train spiritual leadership for the growing Methodist Church in America. However, under the influence of the enlightenment with the rise of academic freedom in the academy, faculty members desired the same status and influence as those in other historic academic disciplines.

When the Church gave the responsibility for the tenuring and credentialing of its biblical and theological faculty to the Academy, the Church became the secondary audience of the faculties teaching at our seminaries. The rise of Modernism, Boston Personalism, and various other topics du jour in the Academy lead to a nearly century-long training of spiritual leadership who may have entered seminary with a more conservative, saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, but would often leave the academy with a faith much different than the one they had when they entered. Asbury Seminary was actually established on the front end of this shift because its founder, Henry Clay Morrison could see the theological shift that was beginning to occur over ninety years ago.

A second development was the focus of the curriculum which was produced by the Publishing House. When the Disciple Bible Study was produced thirty years ago this year, it was the first time that a curriculum using the Bible as its primary source was published by Cokesbury for the whole church in decades. In the fifty years prior to the publishing of Disciple (which was not without its liberal influence) any children’s, youth and adult curriculum developed for the whole church was absent of solid biblical content or distinctively Wesleyan theology and was more focused on moralistic teaching. The Book of Discipline required that only denominational resources be used in our churches, and the official resources developed were not only devoid of solid Biblical content, they did not contain Wesley’s catechism, doctrine, or teaching on the Way of Salvation.

In some circles, pastors and Christian educators sought other sources for solid, biblical, Wesleyan curriculum. I was raised in churches which used David C. Cook or other sources which actually used the Bible and drew participants to placing faith in a risen and living Jesus. I was taught the Wesleyan understanding of grace and the Way of Salvation by laypersons who actually taught it to my preacher father. Others continued to use the denominationally published curriculum—resulting in a church membership that is largely Biblically illiterate, had no holistic understanding of Wesleyan theology, and was taught to make moral decisions based more upon their feelings or the whim of the culture rather than choices rooted in the unchanging word of God.

Ironically, I believe that it was the development of Disciple which resulted in millions of persons actually reading and studying the Bible that has led to a renaissance of more orthodox, Wesleyan expression in the United Methodist Church, and has accentuated the divide that is growing between conservatives and liberals. As more and more people are actually reading and studying the Bible through a Wesleyan construct, they are developing deeper convictions about our faith and how it is to be lived.

The third development came from the keen mind of Albert Outler—one of our tradition’s finest Wesley scholars. When Outler developed the theological construct of Wesley’s Quadrilateral, it was meant to be a framework to help Methodists learn how to work out their own salvation and its impact in our world. Many are often surprised that Wesley never developed this framework or used the word “quadrilateral.” Toward the end of his life, Outler would express regret for what it had become.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral has four “sides” which help develop the framework of theological decision-making: Scripture (what does the Bible say about a topic?), Tradition (how has this topic been handled by 2,000 years of Christian tradition compared to Scripture?), Reason (what does reason and logic have to say about this topic when compared to Scripture?), and Experience (what does my own life experience have to say about this topic compared to Scripture?). The challenge comes with where one places Scripture in the decision making process. Outler, and Wesley, would always make Scripture primary, and the others would progress from Scripture. This is the view held by most conservatives. However, those who have a more liberal view tend to see Scripture as one of four lenses though which we can view truth—and not the primary lens. Many liberals see experience as primary, whether they would state this explicitly or not.   More on this later, but the Wesleyan Quadrilateral’s interpretation and application is a significant contributing factor to our present circumstance.

The fourth development is a reflection of the ecclesiastic leadership of the Methodist/United Methodist Church. Conservatives tended to pay attention to their local churches—after all, they had nothing to do but save souls and the local church is where the action is. However, liberals tended to pay attention to denominational leadership, and for the majority of the last 100 years have provided leadership to our seminaries, General Boards and Agencies, and Council of Bishops. They have often used their positions of power and influence to continue to shift the larger church in a more liberal direction and away from the more evangelical roots of our Wesleyan heritage.

The image of the change that has occurred is that of a rubber band. The leadership of the United Methodist Church has gradually shifted to the “left” and drawn the church in that direction. The pull to the left has been gradual and incremental, but the pull of their influence is unmistakable when one looks at our history.

However, the last forty years has seen a rise in the activity of the conservative movement in the church, and they have begun pulling back from the liberal leadership’s drift to the left. This has especially become the case with the dramatic growth and expansion of the United Methodist Church in Africa. We are becoming what Philip Jenkins describes in the “Next Christendom” and Billy Abraham has recently written about—a church that is reflective of Christianity that is growing in the global south—which is theologically conservative and orthodox in matters of faith and practice. As conservatives have begun to assert their leadership and organize their movement, the direction of the United Methodist Church has begun to shift back toward the “right.” The result has been a pulling of the center of the church—remember the rubber band—it is being stretched to capacity. As the United Methodist Church becomes more and more orthodox in its belief, practice and polity—those who have controlled the larger systems and structures are seeing their power base diminish as the Church changes.

THREE CAMPS and WHAT THEY VALUE

Every illustration has its limitations, but let me try to describe the three groups that I believe are presenting themselves and vying for control of the future direction of The United Methodist Church.

Conservatives—sometimes called evangelicals or traditionalists—are folks who tend to hold to a more historic, orthodox view of the Christian faith. In the Methodist tribe, orthodox believers have tended to place three stakes in the ground from which they are not willing to move: the nature, role and authority of Scripture is primary in matters of faith and practice; the complete sufficiency of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus for salvation; and God’s intention for human sexual expression is between a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage. To be honest, the whole debate and conflict over human sexuality is a presenting system for our disagreements on the nature, role and authority of Scripture and the fullness of the salvation Jesus offers us here. In a world where everyone is trying to make the Gospel relevant and wants us to be on the “right side of history” related to the cultural shifts on human sexuality, orthodox Methodists believe Jesus is always relevant and that God’s word has spoken consistently on matters of human sexuality.

When orthodox Methodists consider the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Scripture is primary. When the Bible speaks clearly about a subject, it speaks. Tradition, Reason and Experience are all subject to Scripture. While we all bring who we are to the reading of the text, orthodox Methodists attempt to understand the original context (after all a text without a context is a pretext to a proof text) while performing exegesis—reading God’s truth out of the text. So, when I, as an orthodox follower of Jesus, read something in the Scripture that does not agree with my lived experience—that is called sin—and through the power of the Holy Spirit, I can receive forgiveness and the ability to bring that area of my life under the leadership of Jesus. Orthodox Methodists believe we are in the life transformation business—that we can receive full salvation here.

Liberals and progressives—are folks who tend to have a different view on these three topics. Where what they call traditionalists believe the Bible is the word of God—many liberals and progressives believe it contains the word of God. Where traditionalists believe Jesus is who He said He is and did what He said He would do—while some liberals and progressives have demythologized Jesus into a good, moral teacher. Where traditionalists believe that the Bible is clear about human sexuality—liberals and progressives believe that modern science and social norms warrant a change in the Church’s position on human sexuality. They view the matters related in terms of civil rights and inclusion. They are committed to changing the church’s current position because they value inclusion above all other values and believe our present stand makes us irrelevant to the changing culture around us.

When liberal and progressive Methodists consider the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, Scripture is one of four opinions to consider, but is not necessarily primary. Some believe that God is giving revelation with the same authority of that contained in the canon of the Scriptures and therefore, supersedes the Bible. So, if their lived experience does not match what the Bible has to say, then they can reimagine the Scriptures to fit their present context. This is called eisogesis—reading the text out of our own experience—which can result in a very different interpretation and application of Scripture.

Thus, we have two ends of the United Methodist Church’s theological spectrum using the same book (the Bible), naming the name of Jesus, and using the same language of grace, which may not be talking about the same faith at all.

Further complicating matters is the rise of the Centrists. The birth of this movement can be traced to a blog by Bishop Mike Coyner about fifteen years ago calling for the “Methodist Middle” to exercise its voice when the poles of our movement were beginning to puts stakes in the ground and become immovable. This was affirmed later by Bishop Scott Jones who called for a “dynamic center” that embraced the balance of heart salvation and social justice and fulfills our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Adam Hamilton (with his books: Making Sense of the Bible and Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White), and Mike Slaughter have become the faces of this expression—trying to keep both ends of the church together at the table—while, unfortunately, facing in one direction when it comes to human sexuality. The rise the United Methodist Centrist Movement has gained regional traction because of its intense desire to maintain the unity of the church. They claim to be centrists, but to be honest, the center has moved to the left and the centrist are more like the old line liberals of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

This became clear to me in 2015. I have always considered myself to be an evangelical moderate—clearly orthodox in belief and practice—but also engaged with people of a variety of different theological positions toward common goals in service to the church. However, when I was approached to join the West Ohio Centrist Movement, I found myself unable to join because of its left viewing stand on human sexuality. Their embracing of what they call the “Gamaliel” option of ignoring the disobedience of individuals and constituencies within our covenant connection who have rejected our denominational decision-making process in favor of one that is based upon the will of the individual person or congregation—was and is impossible for me to agree upon. I believe that our failure to name sin and announce grace in this area is hurting the soul of our movement, and failing to offer the kind of full salvation that Wesley advocated. However, to even call violations of our teaching on human sexuality “sin” is seen as mean-spirited and closed-minded. So—I am not a Centrist by their definition.

Progressives and most Centrists will often use the language “we do not want to be on the wrong side of history” when talking about the Church’s need for full-inclusion of LGBTQIA persons. They often cite the “change” of the Church’s stand on women in ministry and slavery as ways that the modern church has overcome poor Biblical scholarship and misguided tradition in the last couple of centuries by the use of experience and reason. Adam Hamilton’s hermeneutical construct of “three buckets” to classify portions of Scripture as either 1) expressing God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings; 2) expressing God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding; or 3) never fully expressing the heart, character, or will of God, is often used to dismiss or discount the consistent witness of the Biblical metanarrative when it comes to God’s design and best intent for human sexual conduct.

You can read more about Adam Hamilton’s hermeneutical approach and how he uses it to compare our continuing debate on human sexuality to similar debates on slavery and women in ministry here.

Others, who are much more versed than I have addressed the “three bucket” and “wrong side of history” hermeneutical approaches. Dr. Bill Arnold (read here) and Dr. David Watson (read here) have written solid critiques of the “three buckets.” Dr. Ben Witherington has written an excellent response to the “wrong side of history” rationale which you can read here.

Watson writes, “We don’t have to regard a scriptural passage as prescriptive or normative in order for God to teach us. God might in fact teach us through the passages of scripture that we find most difficult. God might teach us through passages that make us mad, sad, or confused. The Holy Spirit is a teacher who will consistently surprise and stretch us in our walk of faith.”

As you can see the varied hermeneutical approaches to Scripture are a foundational source of much of the divide we are facing related to the conversation about human sexuality. We are all reading the same book and are often using the same language, but are giving the texts varying weight and meaning for our context today. When I think about our competing Biblical hermeneutic approaches, I think the issue for me is if the Bible really says something is wrong, I want to know it and be obedient to it. I want to be changed by the Word, not change the Word to suit me. The problem with the three bucket approach is that we get to choose which passages fall into buckets #2 and #3. Which is, of course, problematic.

CONFLICTING VALUES

We can often tell what is most important by the values we hold. When it comes to the present state of the Church, orthodox Methodists tend to hold the value of fidelity the highest—fidelity to Scripture and the covenants we have made. So when acts of ecclesial disobedience are performed, it is seen as an act of infidelity. When folks live in open rebellion and our polity is not enforced, the fabric of our covenant begins to unravel. If persons are not held accountable in this area, what is to stop persons from choosing to withhold apportionments? What about a pastor who is unfaithful to their spouse?

Progressive Methodists tend to hold the value of inclusivity the highest. So when ecclesial law and policies are seen as being exclusive, they can be ignored or broken because of a higher value. They see the value of “love” as expressed in inclusivity as a higher and more important law to follow than the law of the church or even the consistent witness of Scripture. It is my sense that the extremes of the progressive Methodist movement will not be happy unless or until all pastors and churches are forced to do what they value and practice full-inclusion of all LGBTQIA persons in the whole of the life of the church.

Centrist Methodists tend to hold the value of unity above all others. This is seen in the statements from the Council of Bishops at the last General Conference. Our Bishops take many vows at their consecration, but they have lifted their vow of unity above all other values. The actions of the General Conference have sent the results of our most recent skirmish for the soul of The United Methodist Church to the hands of our Council of Bishops and a special commission they have been charged to form. My sense is that the movements at General Conference were born out of the acknowledgment that the global United Methodist Church is not reflective of the “little c” church that elected and consecrated most of the members of the Council of Bishops as Bishops, and this is one last chance to preserve the union.

WHAT’s NEXT?

Only God knows what the final result will be, but I am hopeful that the “little c” church we are a part of has shifted back to be more in line with the “BIG C” Church of Jesus Christ in our world. I would close with a word from one of our African United Methodist leaders. Dr. Jerry Kulah is a seminary dean and leading clergyperson from Liberia. On the Sunday of General Conference, he preached a sermon for the African delegation worship celebration that from what I have heard was a compelling word for where we find ourselves. It was based upon Jeremiah 6:16-17:

“This is what the Lord says: ‘STAND at the crossroads and LOOK; ASK for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and WALK in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, “We will not walk in it.” I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’ But you said, ‘WE WILL NOT LISTEN.’”

Look at the commandments of God in this passage:

STAND at the crossroads. I think it is fair to say that is exactly where we are in our movement. We are at a crossroads. It is good for us to STAND here and take account of the place where we find ourselves.

LOOK. Be careful to read the signs of the times and the directions where the Church of Jesus is flourishing.

ASK for the ancient paths—ASK where the good way is. God is always more willing to help than we are to ask. It is my prayer that the Council of Bishops and their commission will not just look for ways to be so culturally relevant that we forsake the ancient ways of our faith. Jesus does not need us to make Him relevant. He is already relevant—ASK and CHOOSE the more narrow way that leads to life and not the broad way that leads to destruction.

WALK in it. Take the path of the cross that leads to life change and transformation. I am not a prophet, nor am I the son of a prophet, but I cannot see a way that the two extremes can live together without honoring our common covenant—and for those in the middle—you can’t be in the middle and only face one way.

At the end of the day, I pray we listen better than those inhabitants of Jerusalem did—THEY WOULD NOT LISTEN. God would find another way—but Jerusalem would be reduced to rubble in the process.

What will happen to us? It really doesn’t matter in a Kingdom sense. I’ve read the back of the book. When the smoke clears—when the dust settles—when darkness is vanquished by light and the Kingdom comes with the sounds of trumpets—the Church of Jesus Christ will reign victorious—forever and ever and ever and ever. And on that day, the priceless treasure will be bound by the earthen vessel no more and we can live into the Kingdom of God! Until then—we have the Church.

The “little c” church is an imperfect institution run by imperfect people who are endeavoring to carry on the ministry of a perfect Savior. We are going to fall short from time to time and even have stuff blow up—it goes without saying—but the “Big C” Church is God’s strategy for bringing the Good News of Jesus to the world—and God is going to work through the Church of Jesus Christ with or without organized religion, United Methodism, my local United Methodist Church, you or me.

Regardless, it is important to remember as the old membership ritual says, “The Church is of God—and will be preserved to the end of time—for the conduct of worship—the due administration of God’s Word and Sacrament—the maintenance of Christian fellowship and discipline—the edification of believers and the conversion of the world.” God will find a way with us—or without us. My prayer is that it will be with us.