The 2004 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in its closing
hours overwhelmingly approved a resolution proclaiming unity in Christ. In
so doing it professed a desire for dialogue and finding means by which the
diverse theological perspectives of The United Methodist Church could
continue to exist together. In theory, this is a laudable and worthwhile
goal that all who call themselves United Methodist should be willing to
commit themselves to. However, the resolution failed to address the reality
of the position we find ourselves in as a church.
Prior to the 2000 General Conference, the General Commission on Christian
Unity and Interreligious Concerns hosted a dialogue to seek common ground
between the divergent theological positions expressed within our church. At
the conclusion of the first meeting, Bishop Judith Craig stated that the
divergent views on the primacy of Scripture were such that it was most
likely impossible to find the much desired common ground.
The reality is that for more than 30 years our denomination has tried to
find that common ground. The reality is that, in that time, instead of
growing closer theologically, we have grown farther apart. The reality is
that events in the Western Jurisdiction and elsewhere have confirmed that
schism has already occurred. This statement is not made lightly, but with
recognition that schism violates the unity that Christ wills for His Church,
and it pains God greatly. However, wishful thinking and proclaiming that
schism has not already happened does not make it so.
We must face up to the reality that the holders of the diverse
theological perspectives are firm in their beliefs, and that we as a
"united" church lack common agreement on the foundation of our Christian
doctrine. We are house divided. Over the past 30 years, too much time,
energy, and resources have been spent on holding the United Methodist Church
together in the face of our theological schizophrenia. One can only imagine
what could have been done to minister to the least, the last, and the lost
of the world with those resources.
These conflicts are not minor, but strike at the root of revelation,
authority, and mission. We have no compatibility on these matters. This
fundamental division has given rise to a smoldering animosity that will
eventually destroy what remains of The United Methodist Church.
This is more than an intramural ecclesiastical squabble. It raises first
order questions of whether United Methodism has a future as an effective
tool for making disciples throughout the world and, if there is such a
future, how United Methodists are to move beyond our current mode of
quadrennial conflict, a high level of distrust, and widely held cynicism.
The conflict, distrust, and cynicism marking our denominational life today
are not simply emotional reactions, but grow from longstanding experiences
within an ineffective and unfocused institution.
We believe that there is nothing to be gained and a great deal to be lost
by ignoring or denying the divisions that exist in our church. We believe
that only by addressing these divisions will the General Conference of 2008
be better able to meet the challenges already mounting to confront it in
II. Do We Need a New Wineskin?
Lyle Schaller has advanced several questions that we need to ask
ourselves as we formulate a methodology to respond to the division in our
1. Is our denomination healthy and vital? If it is, then there is no
reason not to perpetuate the status quo. (Schaller states that this is
one expression of denial.)
2. Is our present system the one we need to maintain? If it is, then
the problem is that we don't have the right people in the right places,
and we need to effect personnel changes. (This is another form of
denial, according to Schaller.)
3. Do we have a few problems and the time has come to patch the old
wineskin? If so, we need to recognize that patches cost money, and our
top priority should be studying the places that need patching and
raising money for the patches.
4. Are we at a place where we must face up to the fact that the time
has come to replace that old wineskin with a new one?
(The Ice Cube is Melting, p. 92)
Is our denomination healthy and vital? The answer is a resounding NO! Our
history since merger in 1968 has been a witness to continual indifference to
the missional and evangelistic mandates of the church, such that United
Methodism within the U.S. continues in unabated decline. Schaller notes that
at least 200,000 United Methodists exit the denomination every year (p. 94).
Concerns have been continually raised over the lack of accountability in the
teaching of our seminaries, the administration by our bishops, and the
preaching from our pulpits. As a result we have concluded that:
• United Methodism is tragically, perhaps fatally, divided in matters
of doctrine and mission.
• United Methodism has become increasingly irrelevant to the world of
the 21st Century due, in part, to its internal conflicts.
• The ideological and political agenda of some of our leaders,
including bishops, clergy, board and agency officials, and many
delegates to the General Conference has replaced the
orthodox/evangelical/apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ to such a degree
that our denomination has, in some respects, become a hindrance to the
redemption of the world.
• Despite rhetoric to the contrary, many of the establishment elite
of United Methodism in the U.S. do not value or respect the witness and
vitality of the global Methodist Church.
• Unquestioning support of United Methodism is no longer a faithful
response to the call of Christ in our lives and/or our congregations.
• There is a widespread awareness that United Methodism is not united
at a foundational level of beliefs, practice of ministry, and focus of
• The last three General Conferences spent major time and energy on
restructuring, with major research and development efforts leading up to
these conferences, and in all three conferences, the recommendations
coming in were either rejected in toto or radically altered. At
the same time, any attempt to openly discuss the divisions that exist in
the church was firmly prevented. The General Church processes indicate a
dysfunctional institution, not one that is healthy and vital.
Is our present system the one we need to maintain? Again our answer must
be a resounding NO! The irreconcilable differences that exist between
evangelical/orthodox Christians and revisionist Christians within United
Methodism has led to ideological oppression by United Methodist leaders who
expect denominational loyalty while undermining our covenant of doctrine and
polity. This problem is systemic and not limited to a handful of bishops and
board or agency officials. We have observed that:
• Bishops and general agency officials are primarily selected on the
basis of ability to maintain the status quo at best or promote a
revisionist gospel at worst.
• There is no accountability of our leadership to the broader
constituency of the church as a whole.
• Our present system is based upon an antiquated top down
hierarchical understanding, rather than a servant leadership growing out
of a shared ministry.
• The general ineffectiveness of many boards and agencies in
supporting the ministry of the local church means that many local
churches ignore the denominational structure in order to make disciples.
• The denominational system is often so cumbersome that it cannot
respond to the emerging needs and trends in ministry at the beginning of
this 21st century. It is also highly resistant to the kind of
change that would bring about reform.
• In the thoughts of Lyle Schaller (Ice Cube), the system is
set up as a covenant community, but in many ways it currently is
functioning like a voluntary association. The difference between how the
church is functioning and how it is set up to function produces
frustration and ineffectiveness.
Should we patch the old wineskin or replace that old wineskin with a new
one? For over 30 years, the United Methodist renewal groups have been
working to patch the wineskin. Through the expenditure of enormous amounts
of money, time, energy, and creativity, some progress has been made.
Overall, however, the church is demonstrating its inability to resist the
anti-Christian and anti-Scriptural trends of the American culture. And the
hard-won gains on the legislative front are lost through the unwillingness
of individuals and congregations to live by them. An estimated one-fourth to
one-third of the church is operating out of a world view substantially
opposed to the traditional, orthodox Christian world view. Patching the
wineskin simply does not alleviate the consequences of the collision of
those two world views within the church. Patching the wineskin also does not
address the systemic dysfunction that continues to produce conflict and
spiritual and numerical decline.
The thoughts of this paper are based on the conclusion that the unity of
The United Methodist Church has already been so severely compromised by the
teachings and actions of those who advocate doctrinal revisionism and the
acceptance of homosexuality that the only alternative is the creation of a
new wineskin. We have concluded that there are so many roadblocks to the
spiritual renewal of the United Methodist Church within the current system
that the creation of a new wineskin is necessary.
IIl. How to Create New Wineskins
New wineskins can be created in one of two ways: through structural
separation or through radically reconstituting the current United Methodist
Church into a new entity.
A structural separation among United Methodists would merely
reflect the division that already exists within the church, much as a
divorce often reflects the reality of an already existing separation within
a marriage. It would also allow two or more new entities to emerge that
could be structured for evangelism and missions, allowing spiritual renewal
to take place.
The grounds of such a separation are many and include:
• Practical denial of the primacy of Scripture - despite language in
our Discipline that affirms the primacy of Scripture for
theological construction, a large minority of our church has adopted the
idea of "continuing revelation" that may augment or even overturn the
teachings of Scripture. The ideas of "modern biblical scholarship" are
taken as a "corrective" for the traditional understanding of biblical
teachings. Personal and corporate experience, along with the latest
findings of scientific research (whether or not they are born out in
further study), are used to negate or overturn the traditional
understanding of biblical teachings. The consequences of this approach
are seen in the denial of the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of
Jesus Christ, for example, as being inconsistent with a "modern"
understanding of how the world works. This approach is also being used
to disregard the clear teaching of Scripture regarding homosexuality.
• The elevation of inclusiveness - to a certain extent, inclusion is
a Scriptural value that ought to inform the church's witness and
practice. However, it is not the most important value. Values such as
fidelity to the Gospel, truth, righteousness, and obedience appear to
have much more Scriptural weight. The concern is that inclusiveness has
become the overriding value, more important in the church's practice
than doctrinal fidelity, truth, or even a clear experience of salvation
through Jesus Christ. Inclusiveness has become the new idolatry of The
United Methodist Church.
• Breakdown of accountability - although many of the church's written
policies are clear and consistent with traditional Scriptural teaching,
they are not being uniformly enforced. There have been instances when it
has been impossible to obtain compliance with the church's prescriptions
and proscriptions, particularly in the area of the acceptance of
homosexuality. It has also proven virtually impossible to exercise any
action that would hold bishops accountable to the doctrinal standards of
the church, or in the exercise of their Disciplinary responsibilities of
oversight and correct process.
• While all Wesleyans fervently believe there is no holiness without
social holiness, there has been an imbalanced emphasis on social issues
at the national and denominational level, an inordinate amount of time
and energy is devoted to responding to and making statements about moral
and social issues. Much of the church leadership and bureaucracy seem to
operate under the idea that the mission of the church is to change
society and bring about heaven on earth, by political means if possible,
by coercion if necessary. This approach often proves divisive within the
church, where there are disagreements over the most fruitful course of
action in dealing with the needs and failings of society and government.
The church's responses and statements also absorb the greatest amount of
energy and attention, distracting from the more foundational
responsibilities of making disciples and enhancing the effective
ministry of the local church. This imbalance has contributed to the
numerical decline of the church over the past 30 years, and at times
sends the message that social and political change is more important
than personal salvation and discipleship.
• Energy demanded by the need for reform - the efforts of
denominational renewal groups
over the past 35 years have made a significant difference in the
course of The United Methodist Church. They have had a moderating
influence on the church in terms of its social positions, helped to
restore a sense of the disciple-making mission of the church, brought
about a more biblically-centered theological statement, and held the
line on a number of moral issues, particularly marriage, abortion, and
human sexuality. These gains, however, have come at great cost in terms
of the expenditure of time, energy, and money. As a group, the younger
generation of United Methodist renewal leaders is not as willing to
continue devoting that amount of resources to the cause of
denominational renewal. One wonders what the ministry impact of ail
these resources would have been if they had been expended towards making
disciples, rather than in denominational reform. There may not be the
willingness to commit over the next 20 years the same level of resources
that have been committed over the past 20 years by both renewal leaders
and grass-roots members.
• Disillusionment - the experience over the past several quadrennia
has resulted in fatigue and disillusionment among some of those working
for renewal. Despite gains on the "legal" front in terms of passing laws
and policies at General Conference, the momentum still seems to be in
favor of changing the denomination's positions in a revisionist
direction. The leadership of the church, particularly some of the
bishops, appears to be growing bolder in their attempt to defy General
Conference and promote a revisionist agenda. Continued disobedience to
the Discipline and ongoing use of loopholes to circumvent the
intent of General Conference have led many to question the effectiveness
of the renewal efforts of the past 12 years.
The radical restructuring of the United Methodist Church into a
new entity could move in two directions. One direction would be to move more
into an explicitly voluntary association, giving congregations, conferences,
and jurisdictions more autonomy and allowing great diversity within the
overall body of United Methodism (see Option B below). The other direction
would be to move back into a covenant community understanding of the church
(see Option C below). This direction would bring about greater certainty and
uniformity within the UMC. Which direction one takes greatly depends upon
what one's theology and vision of the church looks like.
IV. Options for the Renewal Movement within United Methodism
At this point, there are numerous options and combinations of options
that could be pursued by those desiring renewal of the church. Lyle
Schaller's The Ice Cube Is Melting contains a dizzying array of
factors, options, and issues that could be considered. Here is a summary of
the most salient options and some of the implications of each option.
A. Continue Current Renewal Strategies (Patching the Old Wineskin)
This option sees the tide of "battle" turning in our favor. It believes
that if we continue steadfast in pushing for renewal, we will continue to
make incremental progress in improving the spiritual and institutional
climate of the denomination. It is just a matter of getting the right people
elected as delegates and members of agency boards to bring about the
cultural changes in the church that will foster spiritual vitality and
This option is a type of Forced Departure, which is based
on the model of church discipline, wherein the majority party within the
church would essentially expel the minority party in order to create unity.
The expulsion can be done either indirectly or directly. It would be done
indirectly through making the environment of the church so hostile to the
minority party that they choose either to leave or to agree to amicable
separation. It would be done directly by requiring some type of "loyalty
oath" or other enforcement mechanism that would require individuals and
congregations to choose to leave if they could not live with the current
Both sides are currently attempting to practice indirect forced
departure. Choosing Option A would continue that process. The orthodox have
mastered the legislative process and have been progressively tightening the
requirements regarding homosexuality and (to a lesser extent) doctrine,
hoping that those who could not support or live with these requirements
would leave the denomination. The revisionists have control of the
bureaucratic structures and the episcopacy and are using these structures to
create an inhospitable environment for the orthodox, hoping that they will
eventually leave. Up to now, these efforts have created a standoff that
engenders increasing conflict, rather than resolving the problem. As the
revisionist rebellion becomes more blatant, there will need to be more
explicit methods of direct forced
departure, through the judicial complaint process, elections processes, and
through Boards of Ordained Ministry.
The drawback of forced departure is that it creates a hostile environment
within the church, whereby some are forced to fight against others to seek
their exit or removal from the church. One wonders whether the General
Conference or any other group of United Methodists has the stomach for the
extended battle that would be required to carry out this option. The 2004
General Conference refused to implement strengthened accountability
language, choosing instead to "be nice." One also wonders what long-term
impacts would remain on the church as a result of this hostile battling.
Would the victory be worth the cost? In the meantime, members continue to
leave, evangelism is hindered by the intradenominational quarrelling, and
the church continues to decline.
B Work for a Heterogeneous Denomination
This option believes that we will never get the United Methodist Church
as a whole to agree to our vision of a renewed church. Rather than
continuing to fight against the revisionists for control of the
denomination, we would seek to decentralize control in the denomination and
make a safe and healthy place for evangelicals to do ministry within the
United Methodist Church.
1) Create "local option" for congregations, annual conferences, and
jurisdictions to choose their theology and polity.
2) Create non-geographical "affinity" annual conferences and
jurisdictions that may be
based on theology, type of church, ethnic group, polity, or any other
factor that could be an organizing principle.
3) Create a national free market for ministerial recruitment and
placement, while giving congregations and pastors much more power in the
4) Make most apportionments voluntary.
5) Concentrate on resourcing local churches for ministry, rather than
regulating and controlling local churches.
6) Establish the jurisdiction or the annual conference as the
autonomous governing unit of the church, making the General Conference
more of a loose association of those governing units.
(This approach is a combination of Schaller's options V-VIII and XI, pp.
186-193, 200-203.) This option has the value of retaining the name and
heritage of United Methodism, while creating within it a completely new kind
of church that is horizontal in nature, rather than hierarchical It would
allow each local church to express its ministry in the way it believes God
is calling without requiring that all other local churches agree to pursue
the same course. It would eliminate the battles for control by structuring
the church as a voluntary association and taking a "live and let live"
attitude toward those who disagree. United Methodism would no longer stand
for much of anything as a denomination, but would be an umbrella for diverse
groups with differing theologies and practices of ministry within the UMC.
This option fits in more with the current zeitgeist in the United
States (individual autonomy and self-determination). Thus, it would more
easily be accepted by the General Conference. However, it would put
evangelicals in the position of belonging to a group that would allow
beliefs and behaviors that are antithetical to the Gospel.
C Refashion United Methodism as a High-Expectation Covenant Community
(This approach is a combination of Schaller's options IX and X, pp. 193-200,
with additional elements.)
This approach would also allow us to retain the name and heritage of
United Methodism, while creating within it a new church that would emphasize
high expectations, high commitment, doctrinal certainty, and covenant
accountability. This approach would be to jump immediately to the end state
of what we hope our incremental changes under Option A would bring about. At
the same time, there would need to be a renewal of the restated covenant for
every member, pastor, and congregation. Those churches and individuals who
could not affirm the renewed covenant would have to leave the denomination,
and provision would need to be made for retaining property, pensions, and
the like. This option would include:
1) Enhanced accountability
2) More power given to bishops
3) Emphasis on outcomes, rather than inputs (measure church ministry
effectiveness and hold congregations and pastors accountable for
4) Emphasize missions and evangelism
The conditions and processes necessary to bring about Option C are
similar to those for amicable separation (see below). It also contains
elements of forced departure (see under Option A above). Many of the
drawbacks and advantages of these would therefore apply.
D. Work for a Structural Separation of Methodism
This option believes that it will be impossible to renew the current
United Methodist denomination. A new start for all the various factions
within Methodism would allow for greater creativity, smaller and (hopefully)
more effective denominations, and homogeneous denominations that are
outward-focused, rather than quarrelling as factions within a larger whole.
(This is Schaller's option XII, pp. 204-211.)
There appear to be two options for bringing about a structural separation
within United Methodism: amicable separation and voluntary departure.
The option of amicable separation is based on both sides agreeing that a
separation needs to take place. This option can be precipitated by one or
the other side, but to go forward, it needs the agreement of both sides in
the debate. The proposal worked on at General Conference calling for some
type of commission or task group to create a plan of separation is the
likely form this option would take. The appeal of this option could be
broadened by creating the possibility of more than two options for new
denominations. Lyle Schaller outlines five different denominations that
could emerge (p. 206):
1) A new Methodist denomination closely resembling today's UMC,
without the Restrictive Rules and with a reworked annual conference and
general agency structure.
2) A new Methodist denomination retaining current UM doctrine, but
with a new polity, organizational structure, and system of
3) A new Protestant denomination with its own distinctive doctrinal
statement and an episcopal system of governance.
4) A new Wesleyan denomination with a new self-defined polity and
5) A new Christian religious body with a self-defined polity and
The labels "Wesleyan," "Protestant," and "Christian" relate to how
closely the new denomination's doctrine and polity resembles historic
Methodism. Central Conferences would have the choice of becoming autonomous
Methodist churches or affiliating with one of the new denominations. Under
amicable separation, the United Methodist Church would cease to exist, and
every individual and congregation would be forced to make a conscious choice
of which new denomination to become part of (or to become independent).
This option has the advantage of bringing an amicable spirit to the
process of structural separation, since both sides agree to its necessity.
It poses the least potential for disruption, since minimal energy is spent
fighting the separation and most of the energy is devoted to constructing
the two new entities.
The drawback to this option is its requirement that both sides agree, in
order for it to be effective. One side can hold the other hostage by
refusing to agree, either to the need for separation or to some particular
elements in the plan of separation. It would also require a high level of
agreement by General Conference delegates, who tend to be institutional
preservers and unlikely to easily come to such agreement.
The voluntary departure of an organized group from the church is an
option that is within the realm of possibility. It is the most frequent
model of structural separation in the history of Methodism, including the
formation of such denominations as the African Methodist Episcopal, African
Methodist Episcopal Zion, Wesleyan, and Free Methodist, among a number of
The advantage of this option is that it does not require creating a high
level of hostility within the denomination in order to succeed. It can be
implemented by a highly committed group within the church, with minimal need
for agreement by the General Conference. Thus, this option is most under the
control of the group initiating it, where they are not at the mercy of other
The disadvantages of this option are that it may require some
congregations to leave their property behind (although one hopes a large
enough critical mass of those departing could work around this problem). It
also leaves the United Methodist denomination somewhat intact, with the
accumulation of resources to potentially continue for decades on a
progressively revisionist track. It will also require great investment of
time and energy to create a new denominational structure, with the potential
for further division among the departing group over the shape of that
V. A Word About Tactics
There are several tactics that can be used to advance several of the
above options: redirection of funds, withdrawal of fellowship (or
communion), and networking.
Redirection of funds by local congregations is a means of expressing
principled opposition to the direction of the denomination or parts of it.
This is essentially a pressure tactic, designed to pressure the denomination
into taking steps that the congregation demands. In order to be effective,
there needs to be a substantial number of congregations taking this step in
unison. These congregations also need to have in mind the concrete outcomes
they want to see happen as a result of this action. Redirecting
apportionments indefinitely will have little impact beyond making the local
congregation feel good that they are not supporting a structure with which
they disagree. It can also cause retribution in the form of retaliation
against the pastor or removal of pastoral leadership from the congregation.
Therefore, this tactic should not be seen as an end, but as a means to
accomplish one of the ends stated above.
Withdrawal of fellowship is another, similar tactic, whereby the
congregation states it is out of fellowship (or communion) with a certain
portion of the denomination. This has a symbolic value, but little practical
consequence. Like the redirection of funds, this is a pressure tactic
designed as a means to another end. Most commonly, it is a prelude to