Along the Way: Parting Words & Words of Witness

On May 1st, the Global Methodist Church will officially begin, and some congregations will disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church, the first wave of a separation process that will take years to complete. I will not be going with them, and as the GMC day of departure draws near, I am pondering why I will remain in the UMC. I offer the following thoughts as parting words to those who will disaffiliate, and also as words of witness to those who will stay.

I do not say “good bye” apart from a deep sadness. I still believe that unity is a higher biblical value than division. But I have had to accept the fact that there is a difference between a theology of religion and a sociology of religion. We sum up theology in the word Gospel, and we describe sociology in the word institution. The Gospel is the wine, and the institution is the wineskin. Sometimes the wineskin cannot hold the wine, and it bursts. New wineskins are necessary. We will, of course, continue to disagree about which new skin has the “best wine”—division does not bring that debate to an end—but from the vantage point of sociology, it is time to go our separate ways.

But I do not say “good bye” apart from the remembrance that until I was 66 years old (Lent of 2014), I lived and worked in the part of the UMC that is soon to become the GMC. My time included leadership in Good News and the Confessing Movement, as well as teaching/administration at Asbury Theological Seminary—the seminary now most-aligned with the WCA/GMC split. [1] I did all this in the context often described as ”welcoming but not affirming”—that is, thinking I was being as relational and charitable with LGBTQ+ people as the Gospel would allow. [2]

I lived this way willingly. I trusted those who taught me the non-affirming theology. They taught me many good things about Christianity; why would their beliefs about human sexuality not be good too? I accepted what I was taught (and went on to teach it myself), not taking the time to do my own homework until 2014, quickly discovering that to do so put me “outside the camp” in short order.

Where I now stand comes from the mixture of having been a conservative “insider” for so long (steeped in its scholarship and ecclesiology) and the ensuing eight years on another path. This journey is full of details, points and sub-points, many of which I have previously written about. In other words, my decision to remain in the UMC is an informed one, a decision that advances on several key components.

First, I have learned that progressive theology in general and with respect to human sexuality in particular is as substantive, scholarly, and plausible as conservative theology. I have learned that progressives believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture as much as any conservative does. Our differences are about hermeneutics, not revelation. For those of you reading this as longstanding progressives, you may say “tell us something we don’t know.” But living for six decades within conservative Christianity, you must believe me when I say this was a transforming discovery.

With conservative Christianity’s “one-stop shopping” disposition, I was not encouraged to explore liberalism—mostly with a “no need to do so” attitude (benign neglect), but also with an occasional “if you do so, you will be on a slippery slope” warning that alleged I would be descending into “Christianity lite,” unorthodoxy, and perhaps even heresy. It took firsthand experience to see this is not so.

My parting word to GMC folks is that I have learned progressive theology is as credible as conservative theology.

My witness to those who will stay in the UMC is that you will remain in a denomination that is biblical. You do not have to join the GMC to be faithful to Scripture.

Second, I have discovered that LGBTQ+ people live as committed Christians and devoted disciples of Jesus as much as conservatives do. They do so on the same basis as any Christian—fidelity to the covenant. [3] And they do so made in the image of God as much as anyone on the nonbinary spectrum of humanity.

Additionally, I have seen them live their faith as ignored, demeaned, and persecuted people and do so with a depth of commitment greater than I have had to live it in a heteronormative environment. By expanding my understanding of humanity through the witness and friendship of LGBTQ+ people, my experience of God has been deepened and widened beyond what it once was.

My parting word to GMC folks is that in beginning a new denomination which continues a non-affirming theology of human sexuality that then prohibits full access by LGBTQ+ persons to the church’s ministries (ceremonies and callings) you are providing a seedbed where other divisive, regulatory, and exclusionary seeds can grow, as they have done in other split-off denominations.

My witness to those who will remain in the UMC is that you have not compromised or diminished your faith by commending acceptance, inclusion, and the common good. You have, in fact, decided to personify Micah’s exhortation to “do justice” (Micah 6:8), and doing so in ways that a “pure church” mentality does not do. [4]

Third, I have chosen to remain in the UMC because the two previous points (along with others) produce a theology of love that’s deeper and wider than the stated intentions of the GMC. Of course, GMC folks will disagree with me on this (as they do also on the two previous points), but I believe the potential for a theology of love is greater in the future UMC. And because a theology of love is at the heart of Wesleyan theology, I must remain where it is practiced to the greatest extent. [5]

My parting word to GMC folks is to judge the new denomination “by its fruits”—the heart of which is love, and see how it defines and practices love in actuality. Pay attention to who is affirmed and not affirmed, who is welcomed and who is turned away, and who is given “in” status versus who is “out.” Notice how this happens, and why.

My witness to those who will remain in the UMC is that you can be confident that you are staying in a denomination committed to love in an “all means all” fashion (Colossians 3:11). You will be in a denomination that sees its mission to remove walls that divide (in the spirit of Ephesians 2:14) so that Galatians 3:28 can be realized.

In sum, my parting word to the GMC is “good bye” because it does not offer anything I have not found in the UMC. If you believe otherwise…then go.

In sum, my witness to those who will remain in the UMC is this: if you want to be in a denomination where biblical authority, a credible theology of human sexuality, and a commitment to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself is in full force—you need not leave. [6]

[1] I go into more detail about this in chapter one of my book, ‘Holy Love.’

[2] I now understand that the “welcoming but not affirming” position is harmful, along with other non-affirming stances.

[3] I write about this in chapter two of ‘Holy Love.’

[4] In the Bible, the word justice means equity, fairness, inclusion, and common good. Walter Brueggemann writes about this in his book, ‘Journey to the Common Good.’

[5] The writing of Thomas Oord is shining bright light on a theology of love. I am reading his latest book, ‘Pluriform Love’ with great benefit, helping me to see that the focus of John and Charles Wesley on love was an “openness theology” in the sense the United Methodist Church affirms and teaches it.

[6] My decision to remain in the UMC does not ignore the fact that the future UMC has challenging work to do. Some have already given up and gone to denominations where progressive theology is more fully lived. Like John Wesley, I confess that I have drawn a picture that I/we have not attained, but it is a vision to live into after the GMC is gone. We will not ultimately be judged by the GMC’s leaving, but what we become once they have.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 43 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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