If you are not connected to my religious tribe, you may be completely unaware of an intense and multilayered conversation that continues to occupy the energy of that portion of the Christian family in which I live out my faith and vocation: The United Methodist Church.
It is a conversation about division and disaffiliation
It is a conversation about orthodoxy and orthopraxy and their relationship to one another.
It is a conversation about human sexuality and what the church will teach about it.
It is a conversation about Biblical holiness and what it means to practice it.
Much of the conversation these days, unfortunately, is accusatory and disparaging in multiple directions, nurtured by those so absolutely certain of their own rightness (about one thing or another) that they feel justified in their methodology. If you pay attention to some of the conversation, you will hear multiple references to the goodness of “blessing one another,” even in the case of disaffiliation. What complicates the work of blessing one another, however, is the absence of both a shared understanding of what it means to “bless” and a shared commitment to stewarding that blessing in a manner that invites generosity and honors accountability. It is a messy set of circumstances, to be sure, made even messier by a widespread eagerness on the part of the church’s people to assume the very worst about one another and to articulate vitriolic viewpoints loudly in the various chambers of social media (where everyone gets to hold a microphone, irrespective of the degree of wisdom, care, or sensitivity with which they use it).
A number of people with whom I have journeyed for many years have already made the decision to leave the United Methodist Church and live out their faith elsewhere. The most publicized motivation behind their departure is their anger over what they believe to be unaddressed violations of the 2016 Book of Discipline’s restrictions concerning the practice of homosexuality—restrictions they believe to be absolutely essential if both the Bible’s teaching and the church’s law are to be honored. (Said one pastoral colleague to me recently, “If denominational leaders had just been faithful about bringing punishment to the violators of the Discipline, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”) Accompanying this desire for more consistently enforced restrictions is a concern that the continuing United Methodist Church may become more permissive and inclusive related to homosexuality, since the denomination includes so many vocal and prominent members who steadfastly point to the harm caused to LGBTQ+ persons by the church’s restrictions and who believe that the broader Biblical emphases upon love and justice must take priority over what they interpret to be contextualized (and therefore flexible) Biblical norms.
Some have been quick to name other reasons for the disaffiliation—things like Biblical authority, Christology (doctrine related to Jesus), and an exaggerated emphasis on social justice at the expense of doctrine. I am not at all convinced, however, that any of these additional reasons withstand scrutiny, since the denomination’s Doctrinal Standards (which articulate United Methodism’s collectively affirmed understanding of Biblical authority, Christology, doctrine, and social justice) have not changed. Individual United Methodists may attempt to question, challenge, expand, or even reframe these standards—not altogether surprising within a denominational tradition that has historically encouraged both doctrinal rootedness and theological exploration. But the standards remain unchanged, representing both the collective affirmation of United Methodist believers and the time-tested theological ground upon which they stand. These standards are protected by restrictive rules and prominently placed in the current Book of Discipline. I can only conclude, therefore, that matters related to human sexuality remain the primary fuel for disaffiliation conversations, and that any other articulated issues are, at most, secondary considerations and largely dependent upon perceived inconsistencies as to how doctrinal standards are either articulated or enforced (and not dependent upon the doctrinal standards themselves).
Many of those who have chosen (or are choosing) to disaffiliate from the denomination are people I know personally and love dearly whose faith and ministry have nurtured and shaped my own—pastoral colleagues who have mentored me; parishioners who have graciously walked alongside me; friends with whom I have laughed and cried, celebrated and lamented, worshiped and grown. I acknowledge their deeply held convictions and have no interest whatsoever in arguing with them. Even as I type these words, I am praying fervently for them. Praying for the continued strengthening of their discipleship. Praying for their hearts and minds. Praying that their love for God and neighbor will increase, wherever it is that they land in the denominational spectrum. There is sadness in my spirit over the fact that they have concluded that it is best for them to leave the denomination. (As Retired Bishop William Willimon said in his August 17, 2022 opinion piece in The Christian Century, “the UMC will be weaker when they [disaffiliate]: from the loss of financial resources and [some] of our dearest, most vital congregations and our most creative, entrepreneurial pastors. Progressives will also lose some of their most adept, doggedly persistent, Bible-loving interlocutors…”) My sadness, however, is tempered by my belief that God will continue to work in and through those who disaffiliate in ways that I cannot even begin to imagine. Disaffiliation is certainly not the only lens through which I see them. I hold them deeply in my heart, always with love and gratitude.
As for this pastor and blogger, my conviction about my own place in the Christian Church has never been stronger.
I will be a part of the continuing United Methodist Church.
And with purpose.
When reading those last several words, some may be quick to respond with at least a hint of cynicism: “Of course you will be a United Methodist,” they might be inclined to say. “After all, you are a United Methodist District Superintendent! A ‘company man!’ Your institutional position requires you to toe the party line and offer at least a fabricated loyalty to a flawed institution!”
My decision to remain a United Methodist, however, is the result of neither a reliance upon superficial familiarity nor a penchant for institutional maintenance. Rather, my decision is based upon a two-year season of spiritual searching that included an often-disruptive rhythm of prayer, journaling, fasting, and Bible study. That season of searching produced an entire collection of personal reasons why choosing to be a United Methodist Christ-follower is the only decision I could possibly make about the matter. What follows is a list of ten of those reasons—the ones I believe are most important.
Again, I am not picking a fight with this blog post. I am not seeking to argue with anyone about any of the points I am about to make. I am only offering a portion of my own frail pilgrimage in the hope that what I share will be of some help or encouragement to those of you who find yourself burdened, confused, or perhaps even heartbroken by the current climate within the United Methodist Church.
Here are my reasons:
I am remaining a United Methodist because of United Methodism’s steady understanding of the mind-boggling grandness of God and its deeply-rooted affirmation of God’s Trinitarian nature.
In United Methodism’s Doctrinal Standards (contained in Paragraph 104 of the 2016 Book of Discipline and which are not at all under debate), Article I (of The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church) articulates with noteworthy boldness and clarity United Methodism’s theological understanding of God’s Trinitarian nature:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
I find in those words, and in United Methodism’s ministry in general, a robust and clearly-articulated affirmation of God’s character and nature. The denomination, since its very beginning, has celebrated the mystical oneness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—not portions, pieces, or products of God, but the persons of God’s very identity, devoted to God’s saving work and joined in a perfect and loving unity that both reflects God’s immeasurable vastness and illuminates the abundant joy that God finds in authentic relationship.
If United Methodism abandoned its understanding of God as Trinity, then an accusation of doctrinal distortion would certainly be appropriate. As the denomination’s Doctrinal Standards make clear, however, United Methodism’s worship of the One who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit remains the foundation of the denomination’s doxology. That is of critical importance to me and to the denomination.
I am remaining United Methodist because United Methodism is unapologetically, urgently, and graciously Christocentric (Christ-centered).
Whenever I need to be reminded of the urgency and centrality of Jesus in the Christian faith, I normally do two specific things: First, I spend some time with Colossians 1:15-19, where we are told that, “in Christ, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” And second, I revisit Article II of United Methodism’s Doctrinal Standards:
The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin…very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for the actual sins of [humankind].
The richness and succinctness of the lofty Christology communicated by those words was utterly compelling to me as a confirmand back in 1980. It is even more compelling to me today.
I love being part of a denomination that so clearly names the uniqueness of Jesus and the comprehensive scope of his Lordship. Furthermore, I have come to value greatly United Methodism’s consistent effort to treat its Christology as something to celebrate and share instead of seeing it as a theological weapon to exploit or manipulate.
I am remaining a United Methodist because of United Methodism’s rich and unique theology of grace that both resonates with truth and illuminates the nature of God’s relationship with the world.
United Methodism’s doctrinal heritage and basic Christian affirmations (expressed in Paragraph 102 of the 2016 Book of Discipline) includes the denomination’s uniquely elaborate and descriptive affirmation of the various expressions of God’s saving grace. In those paragraphs, one finds a beautiful description of prevenient grace (“the divine love that surrounds all humanity and precedes any and all of our conscious impulses…and prompts our first wish to please God, our first glimmer of understanding of God’s will…”); and justifying grace (in which “we are, through faith, forgiven our sin and restored to God’s favor”); and sanctifying grace (which is a continuing growth “through the power of the Holy Spirit” and toward a condition of “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked”).
In this Wesleyan theology of grace, which is one of the grandest portions of United Methodism’s unique contribution to the Body of Christ, grace is seen, not as a product of God, but a saving relationship, occurring entirely at God’s initiative, and engaging us from the first moment of our existence and throughout eternity.
It is this comprehensive understanding of grace that undergirds every portion of United Methodism’s identity. The denomination’s worship life celebrates this grace. Its theology steadily affirms it. And its ministries of disciple-making and social justice bear witness to its conviction that God is tirelessly at word to sanctify both fallen souls and a fallen world.
Indeed, United Methodism names and celebrates an amazing grace. How sweet the sound.
I am remaining a United Methodist because of United Methodism’s longstanding emphasis upon joyful and relational evangelism.
In United Methodism’s theological task (outlined in paragraph 105 of the 2016 Book of Discipline), it is said that “we labor together with the help of God toward the salvation, health, and peace of all people” as we “confess our Christian faith and strive to display the manner in which Jesus Christ is the life and hope of the world.”
Life. Hope. Good News! United Methodism finds joy in the salvation that Jesus offers and believes that we fail to be the church at its best when we are not intentional about sharing—in both word and deed—this Good News with a hurting world. I want to be part of a church like this, a church that embraces and reflects the joyful Good News of Jesus and chooses the way of relational evangelism over the way of spiritual colonialism.
I am remaining a United Methodist because of United Methodism’s unique and beautiful synthesis of personal piety, doctrinal integrity, merciful ministry, and social justice.
Another part of what I cherish about United Methodism is its strong conviction that salvation in Jesus Christ includes a synthesis of several soteriological components, none of which can exist in healthy fashion without the others. United Methodism emphasizes the urgency of maintaining doctrine that is as Biblical as it is cogent. As the denomination’s Doctrinal Standards make clear, “our heritage in doctrine and our present theological task focus upon a renewed grasp of the sovereignty of God and of God’s love in Christ amid the continuing crises of human existence.”
In the United Methodist way of being church, though, doctrine is not the totality of discipleship. Rather, it is the fertile soil out of which a garden must emerge, the vegetation of which includes personal piety and merciful ministry (since “even repentance should be accompanied by ‘fruits meet for repentance,’ or works of piety and mercy”) and social justice (since “Scriptural holiness…is always linked with love of neighbor, a passion for justice, and renewal in the life of the world”).
I greatly value being part of a denomination that employs such an extensive and holistic approach to both faith and discipleship. Throughout United Methodist history, one finds a unique and noteworthy emphasis upon both orthodoxy (truthful perspective or belief) and orthopraxy (truthful practice or action). In United Methodism, faith and discipleship, while planted deeply in the fertile soil of sound doctrine, are evidenced and nurtured in an ever-expanding garden of sanctification. In such a garden, things like personal piety, merciful ministry, and social justice are not looked upon as optional crops. Instead, they are part of the necessary harvest that God’s sanctifying grace always yields.
With great respect to what other denominations bring to the Body of Christ, I know of no other denomination whose theology of faith and discipleship is so consistently and Biblically holistic.
I am remaining a United Methodist because of United Methodism’s understanding of salvation as being both about the redemption of souls and the transformation of a fallen world that God refuses to abandon.
According to Scripture, God’s salvation includes the deliverance of souls: “For you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 3:9). God’s salvation also includes a participation in God’s initiatives to bring about redemptive transformation in a world often distorted in sin: “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
Throughout Christian history, these two components have too frequently been separated and pitted against one another—personal salvation versus the redemption of the world; or individual rebirth versus the pursuit of social justice. Part of what I love most about United Methodism is its steady refusal to dichotomize these soteriological streams in a manner that Scripture does not permit. In Scripture, the redemption of the individual and the redemption of the world are never treated as separate or competing realities. Rather, they are two lungs in the same body, each breathing air that the body desperately needs to be fully healthy. United Methodism not only understands this truth. It incarnates it.
I am remaining a United Methodist because United Methodism creates healthy and necessary space for divergent perspectives while affirming the durable and supernatural unity that Jesus Christ makes possible.
It is most certainly true that divergent viewpoints are plentiful in the United Methodist portion of the Body of Christ. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and others gather together at the United Methodist Communion table. Some United Methodists identify as traditionalist/conservative; others identify as progressive/liberal; still others locate themselves somewhere between the two (depending on the issue being discussed).
And, yes, as has been mentioned, there are divergent perspectives related to homosexuality in the church. Because of what they believe Scripture clearly teaches and timelessly intends, some United Methodists want the church to maintain the conviction that the practice of homosexuality is sin. Other United Methodists, because of what they believe to be the denomination’s unjust prooftexting of the pertinent Biblical passages, want the church to put an end to what they see as the sinful and harmful discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons.
More than a few have lamented and decried the tension and messiness that such divergent perspectives have generated within the denomination. Personally, I am one who chooses to see the redemptive potential and the clarifying energy of this tension. I believe furthermore that United Methodism, over the decades, has interpreted this tension, not as a deal-breaking debate between people who believe in the Bible and people who do not, but as an in-house disagreement between Christ-following and Bible-believing siblings who have come to differing (but not disconnected) conclusions about how the Bible is best interpreted and applied concerning homosexuality. Rather than treating the tension of divergent perspectives as the enemy, United Methodism sees such tension as the necessary byproduct of the earnest search for God’s Truth amid the complexities of a world that groans for its redemption. United Methodism maintains that there is sufficient space for even these divergent convictions within the supernatural unity produced by a shared affirmation of the Lordship of Jesus.
Quite frankly, United Methodism needs all of its voices—traditionalist, progressive, and centrist—in order to be the church that God is calling it to be. Each segment of the theological spectrum helps the other segments to remember something important that they are probably tempted to forget. I love being part of a church that makes space for the occasional theological tensions produced by differing but deeply held convictions. If such tension is exploited or weaponized, it becomes a doorway to division. On the other hand, if such tension is given healthy air to breathe within the unity that Jesus makes possible, it becomes a functional hermeneutic in the continuing effort to interpret Scripture rightly and to apply it wisely.
I am remaining a United Methodist because of United Methodism’s long history of affirming Scripture as God’s Word while also affirming that tradition, experience, and reason are necessary interpretive lenses that assist the church in its ongoing struggle to proclaim Biblical truth with integrity.
The manner in which a denomination relates to Scripture as God’s Word is far too expansive an issue to be addressed adequately here. What has always spoken to my heart about United Methodism’s approach, though, is its long-held conviction that Scripture is always “primary” in the denomination’s theological reflection (meaning that Scripture is both foundational and of chief importance in the denomination’s understanding of God’s revelation). Accompanying this conviction is United Methodism’s belief that Scripture is never read in a hermeneutical vacuum and that a healthy reading of Scripture demands the interpretive lenses of tradition (i.e., the way in which past disciples and eras have interpreted Scripture), experience (i.e., the way in which conditions, circumstances, contexts, and events interact with Scripture and impact our Biblical interpretations), and reason (i.e., the way in which our expanding knowledge and cognition might help us to understand Scripture and its context even more deeply).
As United Methodism’s Theological Task phrases it (in paragraph 105 of the 2016 Book of Discipline), “While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason…They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.”
I am grateful to be part of a denomination that honors and reveres the complexity of God’s Word by recognizing that Scripture demands nothing less than careful and rigorous interpretive engagement.
I am remaining a United Methodist because I embrace wholeheartedly the three general rules that date back to the denomination’s origins and that remain somewhere close to its spiritual heart.
“Do no harm”—A call to live in a way that stands against anything that would lead to the hurting of others, the corruption of circumstances, or the unnecessary fracturing of relationships.
“Do good”—A call to initiate specific actions that bless others, that improve circumstances, that correct injustices and inequities, and that reflect the love of Jesus.
“Attend upon all the ordinances of God”—A call to be consistently attentive to those time-tested and soul-nurturing spiritual disciplines—such as worship, study of Scripture, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and fasting—through which God leads a disciple more deeply into sanctification.
These are the three general rules that have shaped United Methodism’s spiritual environment from the very beginning of the Methodist movement.
They are broad and God-honoring rules that speak deeply to my heart and awaken my sensibilities to the things that God values most.
It brings joy to my spirit to be part of a denomination that prioritizes a resistance to doing harm, the embracing of doing good, and a commitment to an obedience to God’s ordinances.
I am remaining a United Methodist because United Methodism is my spiritual home and I love it.
Please do not misunderstand me in this. I do not worship a denomination, nor do I bow idolatrously before United Methodism, as though it were an altar unto itself.
United Methodism, though, has been the only spiritual home I have ever known.
It is where I met Jesus and gave my life to him.
It is where I learned the hymns of faith, the songs of praise, and the teachings of Scripture.
It is where I experienced the rhythms of worship, first with my faithful parents, and, for the last 35 years, with my beloved wife.
It is where I came to appreciate the communal significance of potluck dinners, congregational picnics, and after-worship coffee hours.
It is where I have served as a pastor under appointment for the last 33 years.
It is where I have experienced vital relationships with many other faithful believers who have taught and, more importantly, shown me what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
United Methodism is not the deity I worship, nor is its existence essential to the purposes of God.
Still, it is my spiritual home. One that I treasure and trust. One that I love and cherish. One that I believe is still uniquely poised to offer vibrant ministry in a way that no other part of the Body of Christ can offer it.
For these reasons, and many others, I am—and will be—a United Methodist Christ-follower.
And with purpose.
If you disagree with me in this matter and feel led to leave the denomination, know that I appreciate you and continue to value the connection of our lives.
If, on the other hand, what I have said resonates with your own convictions, know that I am honored to stand alongside you as together we continue in United Methodism’s urgent mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and to allow God, through us, to transform the world.