Lessons from the UMC General Conference Session
By Loren Seibold | 4 March 2019 |
Right next to the Adventist church in the barely-there village of Cleveland, North Dakota, where I grew up, was a Methodist church of about the same size as ours. We knew a lot of the people in that church—they were our neighbors and friends. Back then I thought they were all lost, doomed for eternity, but I still liked them and their little white church with a square, squat tower at the entrance.
I still have a warm spot in my heart for Methodists. So I followed with interest the news of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference session in St. Louis—in particular, the discussion of the church’s relationship to lesbian and gay people as members, participants, married couples, and clergy.
To those of us who are supportive of LGBTQ people, it was a disappointing outcome. I would expect that of my denomination, but I was hoping for a better outcome from the Methodists.
What some might not remember is that many of the early Seventh-day Adventists were Methodists. Methodists were the main church of the frontier, including the rural areas from New England down into western New York state, back through the Ohio Valley and Michigan, where Seventh-day Adventism took root. In the cities the congregationalists, the presbyterians, the Anglicans and the unitarians held sway. But out in rural America, it was mostly Methodists.
Seventh-day Adventists remodeled our Methodism, plastering over it rather thickly with eschatology and an exclusivist identity. But it’s still there, underneath. Like the Methodists, we’re soteriologically Arminian—we believe in free choice, not predestination. John Wesley’s faith was performative, and so is ours: we emphasize spiritual disciplines, moral behavior, obedience, Christian lifestyle, church attendance and participation, and redemptive activity generally.
The World Church
Just as important to this discussion, we adopted Methodism’s church structure. Remember that before they were the United Methodists, they were the Methodist Episcopal Church, and the whole too-many-level hierarchical structure we Adventists treasure was borrowed from them, including our strong bishopric (we changed the title to the more American-sounding “president”) backed by a token democracy. Like them, we have aspired to keep the whole denomination—every congregation, every school, every hospital—under one world structure, in which sense we are like all of the episcopal churches that have gone before, right back to our bête noire, the Roman Catholic Church.
So as we watched the United Methodists at work last week, as they talked about disunity, schism and loss of members, I wonder if we weren’t seeing something of ourselves there, something that made us think that where they ended up we will eventually be going, too.
Many commentators noted that the UMC General Conference vote against gay people (someone will object that I’m not nuancing it sufficiently, but when it comes down to it, that’s precisely what it was) was swung by the developing world delegates. Writes Methodist theologian and author William Willimon, “Many African and Asian delegates, who come from vital churches full of Holy Spirit-induced innovation, joined the conservatives in dictating to the North American United Methodists the boundaries of our mission and the scope of congregational formation.”
Willimon called the vote a “smackdown of North American Methodist mission and evangelism,” and wonders if “they may soon regret the loss of financial support from a considerably weakened North American Methodism”—describing precisely our situation, where most of the money comes from North America, most of the converts from the world field.
For years I’ve watched constituency meetings at all levels of my denomination, and wondered how useful they are. How can a massive group of people who don’t know one another, who meet only every five years, possibly have a useful discussion, much less make a good decision together? To quote Willimon again, “A big, no-holds-barred, winner-take-all political convention may work for a national political party. It’s a disaster for the body of Christ.”
This kind of organization inevitably throws power to the administrators. As Denis Fortin wrote in a recent Adventist Today article, our church structure ends up functioning more hierarchically than democratically, the authority resting more in our denominational offices than in congregations.
And right now, we have a top leader who doesn’t want flexibility in local ministry. He wants, in his own word, compliance.
“It Didn’t Work”
Adventists who want better to understand decision-making in our church structure should read Willimon’s witty, bitter reflection on the St. Louis UMC General Conference. It is angry, funny, and an indictment of the notion that God works through religion organized on a corporate scale. You must understand that, like women’s ordination in San Antonio, the Methodists’ proposal—called, euphemistically, the “One Church Plan”—was framed as freedom to innovate in a local context, not to force everyone to do the same thing. That is, no one was insisting that all churches accept gay members or gay clergy, any more than NAD Adventists were insisting that the whole world had to ordain women.
Willimon describes how at the beginning,
“We prayed for openness to different points of view, unity, communion, gracious listening, holy conferencing, empathetic feelings, and generosity of spirit. It didn’t work. At some point I shifted my own prayers to, ‘Lord, please melt the hardened hearts and smite everyone who intends to vote against the One Church Plan.’ … The Lord, as far as I could tell, had business elsewhere. In fairness to the Lord, months earlier nearly everybody had announced how they would vote on the questions before us. Many vowed that if the outcome was disagreeable to them, they would pack up their congregation and exit the UMC. Ever try to have a church meeting after half of the attendees announce, ‘If this doesn’t go our way, and maybe even if it does, we’re leaving’?”
Although some Adventists would like to see a loosening of Silver Spring’s grip in favor of a more regional church government, most congregations aren’t prepared to exit.
And, in truth, many Methodist congregations may not exit either when they discover that the conference that holds their property title is going to ask them to buy back a building they themselves bought in the first place. (This is a by-now familiar tactic of denominations to discourage defectors: Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, where Carmen and I occasionally attended Christian music concerts when we lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, reportedly paid the PCUSA around $10 million to take their real estate with them as they exited—which in that area was a bargain.)
What is more likely to happen is that individuals will simply walk away from a congregation of an unaccepting denomination, and find one that accepts them. As Willimon says,
“In the four decades I’ve been an ordained leader in the UMC, we have lost 30 percent of our membership. Our response? Spend millions of dollars and hours of work to decide who else we can exclude. From what I know of Jesus, I predict he will not deal graciously with the infidelity of this church born in John Wesley’s exuberant, extroverted, ‘Salvation for all!’”
“The Holy Spirit doesn’t work from the top down,” Willimon writes.
“The Spirit does good from the bottom up, through God’s hijinks in the local church. We Methodists may brag that we are ‘connectional’ in organization and episcopal in polity. But, by God’s grace, this train wreck may give us the opportunity to rediscover the power of the local and congregational.… All pneumatology is local, gift of God from the bottom up.”
I am in agreement with the first line and the last line of that paragraph. I also hope he’s right in the middle part, that by stupid denominational votes Christians will rediscover the importance of the local congregation—but I’m not optimistic. We Adventists, at least, don’t have a very good record for appreciating the local church and the parish pastor, except as a way of feeding the big organization with money and talent.
Of LGBTQ People
I have used this news to talk mostly about how our one-world church structure is not helping us to do the work of God. Just the opposite. It is jamming us into a crevice within which God cannot work alongside of us. This all under the leadership of a man who has little understanding of what it means to do God’s work locally. The man who styles himself “Pastor Wilson” is perhaps the least pastoral man who has ever led the Seventh-day Adventist church, at least partially because he grew up the son of a church official and in his entire life spent less than a year as an actual pastor.
I want to end with a word of my own about the big issue at the UMC General Conference.
I have never, from the time I first met a person who identified as homosexual back in college, been able to understand how the church can exclude them. The Biblical arguments for excluding gay people are weak—weaker than the arguments for excluding unkind, gossiping, angry, prideful and hurtful people. But even if those arguments were stronger, I would not accept them, any more than I accept the Bible on stoning and slavery.
I could cite the research that gay people are born gay just as surely as I was born straight. I could talk about the hypocrisy of Christians who have too often condemned gay people while committing their own sexual sins under the very nose of God. I can opine on how the Christian church has made bigotry spiritually acceptable. Of children who have been rejected by their parents for being gay—at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, tens of thousands of HIV-infected men were simply disowned by their families, with the encouragement of Jesus-loving churches. How gay people have been subjected to psychological abuse in “change ministries” that simply don’t work. Of those who’ve lived in secrecy, playing the organ at church but unable to admit who they really are. I could tell of the dozen or so couples I’ve known who split up when one of them finally had the courage to admit he or she was homosexual, leaving a devastated spouse and children behind.
But if you’re indoctrinated in the anti-gay message that is so fashionable in conservative Christianity right now, you won’t listen to a word of it. I fully expect to see, beneath this article, the most hateful comments of anything I’ve ever written, just because I’ve said that I see salvation, and the church that claims to embody it, available to all—even men who love men and women who love women.
So I will just say this: if you’re a gay person who can’t find acceptance in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, then I give you permission to go out from among us with at least one blessing: mine. You may find a congregation in our denomination that will love you and accept you as you are—there are some. But if not, I send you forth with my prayers to go find God in a church community that understands that God loves all people regardless of what their struggles are. We don’t deserve you.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.