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BODTugOWarThe United Methodist Church appears to be hurtling toward schism. Traditionalists and progressives are at an impasse regarding the nature and legitimacy of same-sex unions, with the increasingly global Traditionalists winning the battle at the legislative levels and the progressives now defying church regulations.

A Way Forward?

Adam Hamilton, pastor of the 20,000-member Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, has offered “A Way Forward” that would hold the two sides together by allowing churches to disagree with and disobey the UMC’s Book of Discipline. Hamilton hopes to move this discussion away from the General Conference (which meets every four years) and back to the local church. The end result would be a United Methodist Church that maintains an official stance regarding same-sex relationships but allows for dissent among local churches and conferences.

Timothy Tennent Responds

Timothy Tennent is a Wesleyan theologian and the president of Asbury Seminary. I interviewed him last year about how the global church should impact our theology. He’s one of my favorite Wesleyan thinkers and writers.

Dr. Tennent has written a series of blog posts regarding the current state of the United Methodist Church and the likely results of Adam Hamilton’s proposal. First, he sets a tone of brotherly friendship and explains Hamilton’s proposal. Then, Tennent goes to the heart of the issue. The debate over homosexuality, he explains, is merely the tip of the iceberg:

Our problems run far deeper than the current debate over homosexuality. In fact, if the “crisis” over homosexuality were to disappear tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the nature or gravity of the crisis which is engulfing the UMC.

The Nature and Context of the Crisis

What is the nature of the crisis among Methodists? Tennent points to three underlying problems:

  1. “We have experienced a slow decline in our confidence in the authority of Scripture.”
  2. A “muddled” understanding of the gospel message.
  3. “A narrow denominational parochialism which seems to blind leaders to the grand faith of the church of Jesus Christ through the ages and around the world.”

The context for this crisis is epistemological, brought on by postmodern notions of truth. Tennent sees Hamilton’s proposal as unwittingly participating in the same postmodern impulses that have contributed to the crisis in the UMC, with a dash of consumerism thrown in as well.

If the Bible is now read as nothing more than 1st century “perspectives” where nothing can be truly known for certain, and we have no objective revelation from God, then why wouldn’t we expect that this is how the Discipline might be regarded as well? Now, even morality is market driven, commoditized, and, distributed by “supply and demand” through a super majority vote to the church nearest you. What is moral on main street just might not be regarded as moral across town, but, ne’er mind, everyone gets what they demand.

Why We Can’t “Agree to Disagree”

So why can’t United Methodists simply “agree to disagree” on the validity of same-sex relationships? Tennent sees the incompatibility of the two positions as inevitably leading to disunity. Why? Because progressives believe homosexuality is innate to one’s identity.

Once homosexual identity is accepted as integral to one’s basic ontology by progressives, then any compromise between the two groups is immoral. The reason is that once this is accepted as a basic civil right, then it is a matter of justice and equality for all. Thus, they cannot rest until justice is enjoyed by everyone.

Furthermore, Tennent understands that there are bigger issues at stake than recognizing and blessing same-sex marriage. The idea that we can “agree to disagree” assumes that there is only one issue at play here. Rejecting a simplistic analysis and reflecting on the current national conversation on LGBTQIA issues, Tennent concludes:

This is not a discussion about sex or marriage, it is a discussion about the elimination of all gender boundaries and assumptions about gender identity, even those markers physiologically given to us through creation. This is, therefore, fundamentally about the Christian view of the body. This debate has enormous implications for historic Christian teaching concerning the body. This, in turn, has even deeper implications for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ and our own bodily resurrection at the end of time.

A Hopeful Future

What are Tennent’s hopes for the future? Sustained and rigorous biblical exegesis, for one. It’s not obedience or disobedience to the UMC policy that matters most; it’s faithfulness to God’s Word. He writes:

I strongly advocate that we insert into this discussion a vigorous discussion concerning the teaching of the New Testament and reasonable guidelines for the interpretation of Scripture. Each side is speaking too generically about their “love of Scripture.” We must engage the Bible and the Wesleyan theological tradition with more faithfulness – that is a call to everyone involved.

In his final post, Tennent offers a tentative solution that avoids schism at the global level but firmly separates United Methodists at the local level into two arms: “Confessing Methodists” and “Progressive Methodists.” He concludes:

We cannot keep pretending that our current covenant is holding. It is time for some bold action. Our Wesleyan heritage is too precious to keep traveling down the road of the status quo. If the truth were told, almost all of our churches (on both sides of the divide) have largely relinquished a clear exposition of Wesleyan distinctives. In addition, we have already experienced the “quiet schism” of millions of members who have left our beloved church. It is time for a true Wesleyan renewal to begin in the United Methodist Church. Let us pray, fast and commit ourselves to God and then, in true Wesleyan fashion, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work and, by God’s grace, forge a new future for our great movement.

Let’s Pray for Our Methodist Brothers and Sisters

As evangelicals, we should grieve whenever churches and denominations are divided. Jesus claimed that one of the ways the world will know the Father’s glory is through His people’s unity. Too often, we give lip service to unity while justifying schism.

At the same time, true and lasting unity must be based in the truth of God’s Word. Unity is impossible when the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture is denied.

The United Methodist Church is divided today over a number of issues, many of which go to the heart of our faith. We have Wesleyan brothers and sisters seeking to be faithful to the gospel in an increasingly difficult situation. Let’s pray that Wesley’s passionate love for Jesus and devotion to God’s Word would once again flood the churches of his theological descendants.

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15 thoughts on “Is There “A Way Forward” for the United Methodist Church?”

  1. Rob Tims says:

    I remember reading a book in college (since revised) by Finke and Starke (The Churching of America?) that chronicled the Methodist church’s demise after its peak in the 1800’s. The primary reason for their demise? Theological compromise, which as Tennent points out, continues this day. Tennent’s remedies confront this issue head on and I hope he is successful.

  2. Judi Murphy says:

    Thank you so much for this article. My family and I have recently left a UMC over some of these very issues. I have used your article as a springboard to personally address our experience in my blog. Until this I had never considered it, but perhaps it will help some of my UMC family.

  3. The Biblical statutes are unchanging throughout all of time. We cannot change what it says because we don’t feel it’s relevant to our time. God has never, changed His word. What was an abomination in the Old Testament and continued to be so in the New Testament, continues to be true even unto this age. There is no making bargains with the Word.

  4. Chris S. says:

    As someone who grew up in the Methodist Church it is sad to read the “Way Forward” proposed and see no scripture referenced or inferred. Thank you for discussing this and praying for this denomination to find a scriptural basis to move forward.

  5. Kyle Tennant says:


    After six years working and training for ministry in Reformed and Calvinist contexts, I rather unexpectedly ended up in the UMC—not because I grew into liberalism, but because Jesus sent me here. I appreciate your compassion. I’m tired of reading blogs that treat our tribe as lost, confused, or even stupid.

    The UMC has a lot of work to do to resolve our present identity crisis; but what I love about the UMC is that I can be a part of conversations about real issues with people who think differently than I do. It’s not always easy, and as a conservative Evangelical, I’m not always everybody’s cup of tea, but I get to do real theol

  6. Kyle Tennant says:

    *real theology with people of differing opinions.

    All that to say: yes! Please pray for us!

  7. Aaron says:

    Thank you so much to this ministry making the United Methodist issue known more on the Evangelical side. As a young person seeking ordination as elder, it would be impossible for me to abide by such discipline if changed. Please, please, please pray for us. I feel such a great joy that Asbury Seminary is helping us with these decisions. I find it interesting however that most liberal pastors will not even listen to these distinguished professors. Help us, if at all possible. Despite the differences in our theology, we still hold to the Christian doctrines and how they apply to our lives.

  8. Christiane says:

    ” Because progressives believe homosexuality is innate to one’s identity. ”
    Many do believe this, and they profoundly want to support the members of their families and their friends who have gender issues. They want to protect them from the likes of folks like Westboro Baptist Church. They want to protect them from legislators who would take away the civil rights from folks with gender issues . . . the same civil rights that are enjoyed by so-called ‘straight’ Americans.

    I’m glad this was mentioned because it is a beginning of understanding why so many Americans are passionate about defending their LBGT friends and family and acquaintances from the perceived harassment coming from the right wing of Republicanism and Fundamentalism. Their hearts are in the ‘right place’ in the sense that they wish no harm to come to their ‘peeps’.

    As far as the ‘right’, much of what is perceived by the left as ‘harassment’ is meant to control the status quo where it is so that no more changes are made in our society to make it easier for gender-issued people to function like the rest of us. Also, for those on the right who are fundamentalist (Islamic, Jewish, and Christian), intervention is seen as an effort to ‘save’ sinners from hell. So these people also have their hearts in the right place, as wanting the best for all Americans, and for not wishing that any should go to hell.

    How do we craft a society where such extremes co-exist and are well-treated? That is something no one seems to have an answer for at this time, but there are plenty of people out there stirring up the trouble pot and being divisive . . . in short, behaving without good hearts, behaving in an unAmerican way, and behaving in an unChristian manner.

  9. chad says:

    I find irony in us as Protestants taking issue with schism and instead pursuing a so called unity. Protestants are the product of both theological and institutional schism. Read the Book of Concord (Lutheran confessions) to see how much disunity our Reformation caused in the 1st. We have historically sought unity in the sola’s which form our basis for all later Protestant theology while at the same time encouraging believers to interpret scripture for themselves. This is the quandary now…we appeal to the authority of scripture in this debate but when scripture itself is reinterpreted in a way to support a sinful lifestyle then we have lost a common sense of what it means that our main source of unity (the Bible) is authoritative in the first place…

  10. Clinton Grant says:

    Aren’t those ordained, who do the opposite of what they pledged to do (uphold the Church Discipline) committing a sin? If they changed their mind then they should resign their position. If they can’t get the rules changed legally, they have the option of no longer belonging to this organization.

  11. Aaron says:

    Exactly…Apparently one cannot abide by discipline and pursue changes they must rather deny the discipline and strive to make changed. It is a sin. A forgivable sin, but when without seeking forgiveness or rather Christ, I get a little worried for the pastors whom are in such group.

  12. Stephen Burkhart says:

    I am convinced that God is not interested in saving ‘any’ church or the entire ‘United Methodist Church’ . But God is committed to saving the World. And if each church/denomination seeks, receives, pursues their part of the ‘mission’, salvation becomes a given. This is a good article and summary of the issues. As a committed ‘traditionalist/moderate’ I welcome all in worship and fellowship with the only agreement required to be in worship, is that we don’t have to agree on everything. But as a Wesleyan Evangelical Pentecostal United Methodist I strive to preach Scripture as ‘primary’ , looking at the Old Testament in the light of the New Testament, and both Testaments in the light of the witness of Christ. The Hamilton/Slaughter approach breaks ‘connection’ to congregationalism, and ultimately structures schism within, protecting the pretense of an ineffective overburdening theocracy rather then honestly facing we are in schism, Prayer and fasting! Absolutely. Thanks to my Christian Church friend who share this article as he knows my heart is breaking.

  13. Terry Keiner says:

    As both a Pastor and an Author, (Living Right In A World Gone Wrong , Volume 1 and The Evangelical Within), who counsels with other pastors and writes on Scriptural issues in the lives of New Testament Believer’ in our busted-up world today, it seems to me that this situation has been ‘over-thought.’ Let’s get rid of all of the twenty-five cent words and get back into the Bible, which incidentally is my most common advice to people, whether it be a Pastor or a seeker. The Bible is remarkedly clear on a great many issues, including homosexuality. I don’t have to do any quoting or referencing here, everyone knows that God specifically identified anything ‘same-sex’ as abhorrent. Nobody breathing today has the authority to re-write God’s position on this issue, or on the other issue addressed here, that being the interpretation of Scripture. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve read through the Bible more than a handful of times over the years, and I honestly don’t understand what all of this interpretation is all about. I’ve never read anywhere in Scripture 1) that Believer’ need interpreter’s in order to understand His Word, and 2) I’ve never come across any passage that wasn’t very clear and concise. Now, with all of this being said, I do understand why there are a great many out there who make their living explaining to the rest of us poor ignorant souls what the Bible says. Just as there are those who are very good at making any part of God’s Word mean whatever it is they’re promoting at any given time. My challenge is this; pray over an issue or question, then follow where the Holy Spirit leads you in the Bible, then thank God for His clear and concise answer. Oh, by the way, I didn’t need an interpreter to understand any of this, I just prayed, then read, then praised. Do what I did years ago when I asked my pastor to show me where in the Bible God said we needed interpreters. His response was to ask me to leave the Adult Sunday School class he was teaching, and not to come back. I thank God for that day every single day of my life because it forced me to begin testing everything by God’s Word, not by what someone said was God’s Word. Thank You Father Lord!

  14. Todd Hawk says:

    As a former United Methodist pastor, let me say that the homosexual issue is simply the symptom; the true sickness is found in the UMC leadership refusing the authority of scripture. Sadly, many within the laity are more concerned with preserving the denomination than with presenting the gospel. A split has been coming for years. Make no mistake. It is inevitable.

  15. Hmmm… This is a first. I actually agree with Timothy Tennent: “It is time for a true Wesleyan renewal to begin in the United Methodist Church.”

    Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may forward one another in love and in good works.
    – Catholic Spirit, Sermon 39

    There are many doctrines of a less essential nature… In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’ These are the fundamental doctrines… summed up, as it were, in two words, — the new birth, and justification by faith.
    – On The Death of The Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, Sermon 53

    – John Wesley

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​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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