A Cell Biology Perspective of the #UMC (Guest Post by Andrew Book)

Diagram provided by the Rev. Andrew Book.

I spent several years focused on understanding life at a microscopic level. My time helped me to see how life works at its simplest level, and, the more time I have spent pondering the United Methodist Church’s struggles as an organization, the more I have realized that there is much we can learn about how to be the church by looking at microscopic life. All living things share seven (or eight) characteristics. [1] At the top of that list is something called “homeostasis,” which is a fancy word for saying that being alive means you need to be able to control what goes on in your body.[2] Life at every level has ways of controlling what goes on inside of us. For humans that begins with our skin which keeps the inside in! The parallel to human skin for the smallest microscopic organisms is the “cell membrane.” The cell membrane’s job is to maintain “homeostasis” within the cell. If the cell membrane is destroyed, the cell is dead. The organs of a cell simply cannot function without a constant environment around them. They physically drift apart and physiologically collapse without an environment that sustains and supports them.

So, what does that have to do with the United Methodist Church? The UMC is (hopefully) a living organization, and as such we need ways to keep ourselves together. We need a cell membrane that allows us to understand what the United Methodist Church is so that we can do ministry together. The support of the UMC as a whole allows conferences and churches to thrive and be in ministry together. If the UMC cannot provide that support, conferences and churches will either have to find it elsewhere (Wesleyan Covenant Association? Reconciling Ministries Network?) or try to survive on their own. If our churches need to look outside the connection (or find within themselves) that support, resources, and identity the denomination should be giving them then the UMC is, for all practical purposes, already dead.

So, what is the membrane that holds the United Methodist Church together? Different leaders, churches, and conferences would answer this question in different ways (which is an indication that we have a problem!). A large portion of the church professes that our membrane is the decisions recorded in the Book of Disciple, and so, when some conferences and jurisdictions insist they will not adhere to portions of the Discipline, the membrane is torn, homeostasis is lost, and the church begins the spiral from life to death.[3] I’ve heard many people express disbelief that “one issue” (in this case LGBTQ inclusion) could break up the denomination, but we need to understand that it is not the issue so much as the loss of our united identity. Edwin Friedman, in his seminal book Generation to Generation does a good job of explaining that “It is almost never the issue per se that is destructive but, rather, the overall homeostatic conditions that give to any issue its destructive potential.”[4]

The church today is in that place. We have lost homeostasis. Death is not immediate, but it is inevitable unless we regain our sense of who we are. The course can be reversed if we are able to repair the breach[5], but that can only happen if we are able to reach a place where there is a united (pun intended) understanding of what it means to be the “United Methodist Church.”

Well before General Conference, I put together a proposal to make clear who we are based on strengthening our commitment to the Articles of Religion, General Rules, and Confession of Faith. [6] For me, these core documents provide a good place to start. But regardless of where we start, we need to arrive at a unifying understanding of what it means to be United Methodist if we hope to be a church that impacts the world into the future! I trust that God can lead us and pray God will use the UMC to make disciples who transform the world for years to come, but we need to have our ears and eyes open so we can see who God is calling us to be!


[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life for one list. Other lists vary slightly but are usually contain these elements in one form or another.

[2] Ibid.

[3] In this model, it is the conferences and jurisdictions who have decided not to follow the Discipline who are tearing the membrane. This is not to say conservatives are blameless. There is plenty of blame to be shared if we want to focus on blame, but I would rather focus on the reality that we have lost our identity and need to re-establish it quickly if we want to survive.

[4] Friedman, Edwin. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The Guilford Press: New York, 1985. 204.

[5] The words of Ezekiel 22:30 are poignant here…

[6] This proposal also allowed for LGBTQ inclusion. http://tiny.cc/unitedindoctrine

About the Author: Rev. Andrew Book is an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of the UMC. He is the pastor of Courtland UMC. He can be reached at andrew.book@gmail.com or on Twitter.

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