Who Holds the Future? Thoughts on Power, Coercion, and Schism

Image: I don’t support bullying
Image courtesy http://www.bullyingnoway.gov.au/

“May any fruit that grows on or from us throughout this painful debate always signify that we are followers of Christ.”

-Professor Douglas Campbell

One of my convictions as an ordained Elder is that the United Methodist Church is not mine.  Yes, I have a vested (literally, haha) interest in seeing her flourish.  Yes, I am tied to her by the ecclesiological equivalent of a marriage through ordination.  I’m with the UMC “for better or for worse.”  I did not ordain the Church, but rather the Triune God has called the church into being as the Bride of Christ and continues to love the Bride, even when she resembles the whore of Babylon.  In short, the UMC – like all of the Body of Christ (for we are just one, admittedly lovely, part) – is God’s church, not mine or yours.

Contrast that with the view of the progressive and evangelical caucuses.  A group of 80 evangelicals (I maintain the best name for this group is the UM College of Cardinals) has titled a press release naming their own concerns, “Regarding The Future of the United Methodist Church,” indicating that they feel entitled to determine that future on their own – and anonymously.  At least when the Roman Catholics are in conclave we know the names attached to those little red hats.  In a recently released video, Good News’ President Rob Renfroe even mentioned the group’s desire not to see churches harmed that “we love and that we have built.”  (Whoa!) Whose church is it, again?

As for the progressives, a group of about 6-10 people who fancy themselves “Love Prevails” have recently released a “Manifesto” which, depending on your point of view, either reads like Luther’s 95 Theses or a freshman political science major’s rantings.  Under the third of their three “D’s”, the small but merry band – who likes to claim outrage and then jovially paint lipstick on statues of John Wesley – wrote this:

“The time for polite persuasion has passed. To ensure discrimination no longer flows uninterrupted, we will protest and disrupt local, national, and global events. We will undermine all policies that limit or deny the full participation of LGBTQ United Methodists in the life of the church.”  

It concludes with a promise to disrupt General Conference 2016 if necessary and – given the nature of Robert’s Rules – it seems pretty clear that they plan do that regardless.  Ten or less people will attempt to hold General Conference hostage. Whose church is it, again?

I do not believe the UMC is my church.  Yes, I have a voice, and as an Elder I have a calling to seek the best for the church even as I live out my vows to be faithful to this community, to obey my spiritual leaders, and to build up the people and community I serve to the best of my ability.  But she’s not mine, she’s God’s, and should be treated as such.

Part of recognizing that the church is God’s, and the future of the church thus belongs to God, is recognizing that the good of the whole is more important than my own particular views. Thus, while I may not agree with all my sisters and brothers, I am called to love them.  I have been greatly helped on the importance of this by one of my professors, NT scholar Douglas Campbell. Describing the basic perspective of the Apostle Paul, Campbell argues:

“He proclaims a qualitatively higher relational capacity in Christians, which is a complicated way of saying that he thinks Christians should behave in a markedly better fashion towards people, and he attempts to link this to existence in Christ.”
Professor Campbell goes on to assert that, even though Paul himself was not perhaps the best example of this trait, both the ends and the means of Christian discernment matter because all things are to be done “in love”:
“Hence, the process as well as the end-point is critical, because if the process is betrayed in Christianity then the end is also betrayed automatically: for a relational entity whose end-point is perfect relationality, an aggressive journey to that end point is an absurdity.”

Both the left and the right in the UMC are making a mad dash towards this absurdity: the right threatens to withhold funds (divest?), or perhaps break away all together and take who-knows with them.  The left is determined to dig their heels in and has taken a “renovate or destroy” strategy.  Most of the moderate evangelicals and progressives, who may agree with the goals of their ideological partners but not their means, are all too silent.

We should all be troubled by such strong-arm tactics wherever they present themselves, because they are, as Campbell names them, absurd.  Here’s my suggested rule.  I’m by no means a “leading pastor,” by any description, but I think I have something to offer here:
If we wouldn’t allow it in the local church, it shouldn’t be allowed in denominational advocacy.

Simple, isn’t it?  Here’s how I look at it:  I wouldn’t allow a group demanding entrance to a Church Council meeting or closed SPRC meeting to have the floor, no matter how how much I sympathized with their grievances.  Nor, on the conservative side, is it advisable to negotiate with hostage-takers; one of the oldest tricks in the local church is for a power player to threaten to leave or withdraw their tithe in order to get their way.  All of these aggressive tactics deserve to be condemned, not taken seriously.  To give in out of empathy, fear, or misplaced charity is to encourage that behavior to continue.  In Edwin Friedman’s systems terminology, it is to continue to “adapt to immaturity.”

One last word from Dr. Campbell.  Writing on the subject of our day, gay ordination, he asserts,
“Moreover, the very resolution of this issue must, as far as is possible, reflect the relational integrity of the Trinity.  Unnecessarily divisive and/or coercive approaches to resolving this problem – on both sides – must be emphatically rejected.”
Allowing the extremes to set the terms of this discussion, and thus attempt to determine the future of God’s church, is nothing short of ludicrous.  We are followers of Christ.  All power, glory, honor, influence, and authority belong to him.  Not me and my friends.  Not my agenda.  Not my caucus or jurisdiction.  None of us holds the future.  An old Gaither song goes, in part,

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living, just because He lives

God holds the future, and we should start acting like it.  Jesus is Lord, not us. As United Methodists, we honor the procedure of decision and discernment that we have all agreed upon, not because of “institutionalism” or “business as usual,” but because we seek to honor Christ.  If we need more love in our process of discernment, this will come by prayerfully infusing it with God’s Spirit, not by a power-play to circumvent it.  Moreover, our Bishops should be held accountable to what they have been consecrated to do, but even this must be done in love.  It isn’t their church either, after all.

And it’s not mine.  I’m no one important. I haven’t built – or rather, God has not used me to build – a megachurch.  I am not a leader of any consequence in these discussions.  I don’t go back generations in the UMC and I’ll never have a seminary wing named after me.  I just happen to love the church that baptized and ordained me, and I want us to do and be better.

May we seek methods and ends that both please God, and may we be satisfied with nothing less.  And have hope, dear friends: neither we, nor any caucus or region or “leading pastor[s]” hold the future of the church.  God does, and God alone.

[Source: Douglas Campbell, ‘Some thoughts on the apostle Paul and ethics.’ In M. Rae and G. Redding (eds.), More Than a Single Issue: theological considerations concerning the ordination of practising homosexuals (Openbook, 2000) pp. 77-94.]


  1. And excellent article; you explain the view that I also share very well. The church is absolutely tacitly encouraging immaturity, and I hope through your words, some of the more moderate voices in the church dedicated to unity will speak out as well. Thank you.

  2. I contend that one of the underlying reasons we experience so much contention in “our” church is our choice to make decisions by voting. Voting is inherently polarizing, and is NOT a Biblical method. Voting requires people to take sides on an issue. Moreover, in my 24 years of active ministry, I experienced MANY occasions in the local church when I honestly believe committees made decisions that subverted the intention of God. Instead of voting to invest in ministry to the poor, for example, my church members voted to invest in their own buildings. Instead of considering issues in light of scripture people voted according to their own self-interest. This happens at EVERY level of the church and it is NOT a healthy way for a church to operate.

    Instead, we need to look to scripture for alternatives. I’d also suggest that we look to Christian communities that HAVE developed effective sustainable models of doing church. We have much to learn from the Coptic Church, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. They do many (but not all) things better than we do. If we want to move forward to become a GLOBAL church we should consider some of their organizational practices.

    I would especially like to see us adopt the Biblical idea of casting lots for some decisions. Why can’t we choose bishops or judicial council members from a pool of qualified candidates? Casting lots is both Biblical and Wesleyan. I don’t think it would eliminate all of the politics and power struggles, but ultimately, it would reduce the vitriol. The main impediment is our own unwillingness to give up control. But shouldn’t WE give up control to God?

    1. Holly I agree that there are betters models of how to confront and deal with conflict and division as evidenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Kevin Carnahan suggested in his blog that we recognize and match pastors and churches with similar theological stances, acknowledging that we have a very wide difference of opinion. In the Roman Catholic Church, Franciscans can say “I am not a Dominican, but I am still a Catholic.” Dominicans could make a similar statement concerning their Franciscan brothers, and still remain in the Roman Catholic fold. Is this, to your mind, a workable scenario for United Methodists? Can we formally chose where we stand and still stand under the same big denominational tent? This may, in fact create (several?) ecclesio in ecclesia, but maybe Wesley wouldn’t be too upset with that idea. Your thoughts, please.

      One last shot across the bow of our episcopal leaders’ ship: No matter how wise and holy a solution God may present before us, if the idea of covenant is not restored and respected, we will not be able to break out of this current, destructive model.

      As far as casting lots for positions, I haven’t given up on holy conferencing just yet. As Rev. Campbell, the Church belongs to Christ, who promised that the gates of hell would not overcome it, let alone a few selfish or misguided voters.

    2. I think that would a Calvinist solution, insofar as we Methodists typically view God as co-operating, empowering us rather than over-powering us. I don’t know if it would be ‘responsible grace’ to just cast lots. I do think we could learn much from our Catholic and Eastern Christian friends.

      1. If you have read Wesley’s journal writings, you would be aware that one of the hallmarks of the Wesleyan revival was the fact that people were often overcome by the power of God as they met. I long for that.

  3. The “Methodist Middle” of today sounds like the “Methodist Middle” 50 years ago. Please read “Why We Can’t Wait” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    1. Kevin, I wasn’t around 50 years ago and I don’t think progressives do themselves any favors by simply saying “BecauseMLK.” This is because MLK was advocating for a change in the civil sphere, which I am not touching on, and because civl rights and church blessing are two entirely different things (though many attempts are made to conflate them). I am quite supportive of efforts to ensure equal rights under law for gay and lesbians couples, but I think the church discussion vis-a-vis marriage and ordination is more complicated as these are gifts and not “rights” as generally understood.

    1. Billyy, thanks so much. I think this is exactly the kind of thing Campbell has in mind. His work is excellent and I would encourage you to read it. A good place to start is The Quest for Paul’s Gospel.

  4. Just a quick note to say that bullying can also be in the eye of the beholder and bullies can be among the quickest to claim they are being bullied when caught out.

    A technical matter: In Love Prevails blog they are quite clear that they found a bust of John Wesley that already had lipstick on in it, not that they put the lipstick on. A small matter, but such do add up to false witness if carried on, gossip-wise.

    1. Wesley, I agree with you. The claim of bullying is much like the claim of privilege – it can easily be more about silencing an opponent than saying anything truthful.

      As for the lipstick piece, I took them to be joking, honestly. If I was mistaken, I apologize. Nevertheless the juxtaposition of that imagery with their purported outrage at the “violence” of the CT dialogue was unbecoming. If one is going to claim the mantle of King, act the part.

      1. Drew, have you ever found one of those incongruities that makes you laugh even if it is about one our sacreds? Jesus now sinks because of those darn holes in his feet: John Wesley’s bust now has lipstick: I just tripped over one my my best intentions again: …. Juxtapositions happen! 🙂

        By the way, I’m not in the running for King, but would appreciate that a church that did not declare some to automatically be serfs as their birthright.

        I am also not looking for some middle-of-the-road satisfaction that can take umbrage at any GPS voice that a next turn is going to be needed. Blessings on trying to hold things together in the face of changes needed for a greater mercy. [That is not a subtle put-down as we need to hear what still holds even as a breath of new life shifts the ground under our feet.]

  5. The Church’s Plea – v2

    We pray you will listen
    but we know there is distance
    space between us
    which we regret.

    If you used to come
    to this church, this sanctuary
    if you once felt belonging,
    part of this family;
    but you left because
    of something someone said
    or didn’t say or
    something someone did
    or didn’t do,
    We apologize and
    we ask you for forgiveness.

    We pray you will hear us
    a genuine apology
    we can’t change the past
    but we want you with us.

    Please come back;
    we need you, with us
    we didn’t mean to hurt you.
    Our life together will be
    richer with you here with us,
    healed of our brokenness, schism.
    We love you and we are sorry
    if we hurt you in any way
    with our words or our actions
    or when we failed to act or speak.
    We too are human; we make mistakes.

    edited May 30, 2014
    The Church’s Plea – v2
    May 2, 2014
    The Church’s Plea
    2 Corinthians 4:1-16
    2 Corinthians 4:15
    “Jesus All the Time!”
    devotion by Phil Robertson

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