Ever since the United Methodist Church (UMC) was formed in 1968 by the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, the question of how the denomination should view homosexuality has been a recurring issue at each of their quadrennial General Conferences. This conflict existed despite the fact that The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s rules, explicitly describes homosexuality as contrary to Scripture and forbids both the performance of same-sex marriages as well as open and practicing homosexuals from serving in the clergy. In 2016, it seemed as if the question was finally going to be settled, having been forced upon the delegates by the refusal of several pastors and bishops to enforce the rules of the denomination. However, the Council of Bishops decided to kick the can down the road. This past week, it was time to address the can.
A special-called General Conference took place in St. Louis, Missouri, this week to decide between different plans that had been proposed. The two leading plans were known as the “One Church Plan” (OCP) and the “Traditional Plan” (TP). The OCP proposed allowing each congregation to decide for itself whether it would hold to biblical orthodoxy or go with the cultural tide on this matter (a rather strange and, dare I say, baptistic method that is completely at odds with the episcopal hierarchy of the UMC). The TP, on the other hand, reasserted the existing rules of The Book of Discipline and strengthened their enforcement. The Council of Bishops overwhelmingly supported the OCP.
However, their support was not enough to push the OCP to victory. It was defeated and the TP was adopted by the delegates. Because the UMC is a global church, delegates attended from around the world. The African delegation was particularly strong in its defense of the TP, an encouraging sign from a continent where Christianity is growing. For now, The Book of Discipline’s orthodoxy viewpoint remains in effect on the matters related to LGBTQ+ questions.
Yet even that is up in the air at the moment, since certain aspects of the TP were considered to be “unconstitutional” as they related to the UMC (the denomination has an ecclesiastical court system that has the authority to decide such matters). These matters may leave everything in limbo until the next regular General Conference in 2020, when delegates again will have to take up the issue and debate potential amendments to bring the TP into overall compliance. The opponents of the TP will likely engage in the same parliamentary delay tactics they did at the end of this special called Conference, which they hope will extend the chaos and wear the supporters of orthodoxy down to the point they leave the denomination.
Much of this ecclesiological wrangling sounds strange to our Baptist ears, since there is no ruling hierarchy in our church structure. Still, what our faithful brothers and sisters in the UMC are struggling with has implications for the universal Church. All of the other mainline denominations have already given in to the cultural pressures of the moral revolution, and their precipitous decline has been the result. I do not think it too much to say that their lampstands have been removed (cf. Rev. 2:5). There are two paths before the UMC (cf. Deut. 30:19-20), and we should pray that they choose the path of life and not death. We certainly have our fair share of theological disagreements with our UMC brothers and sisters, but in moments like this, our prayers should be with them – that they stand firm for the truth of the Word, that they choose to be obedient to what is found therein, and that they resist the temptation to follow the world’s wisdom. It wasn’t that long ago a similar fight occurred for the direction of a denomination; what the Lord did for the SBC, He can do for the UMC. Just something to think about…