Similar to other denominations before them, the United Methodist Church (UMC) recently experienced an incident that has pushed the fractured denomination closer to declaring itself officially untied. On July 15, 2016, at the DoubleTree Paradise Valley Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, the Western Jurisdictional Conference of the UMC elected the first openly married lesbian to the office of Bishop. The Rev. Dr. Karen Oliveto, Senior Minister of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco (one of the UMC’s largest churches) was formally elected on the 17th round of balloting. She was one of three openly gay candidates running for bishop within the denomination.
However, this action blatantly defies UMC doctrine and policies outlined in “The Discipline of The United Methodist Church.” According to the preface in the 2012 edition, “The Discipline is the instrument for setting forth the laws, plan, polity, and process by which United Methodists govern . . . It is the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together. It reflects our understanding of the Church and articulates the mission of The United Methodist Church: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The Discipline defines what is expected of its laity and clergy as they seek to be effective witnesses in the world as a part of the whole body of Christ.”
In addition to her marriage to another woman, Oliveto has openly disregarded church doctrine and law by presiding at 50+ same-sex weddings. This behavior exemplifies that of other UMC clergy, boards, churches, committees, conferences, jurisdictions, and members who have not only individually flouted the will of General Conference and rejected the rules of the Discipline they agreed to uphold as members of the UMC, they have openly covenanted together to do so.
Many have wondered why those who disagree with the doctrine and policies of the UMC have stayed. Why not just leave? Why not associate with a different denomination, or start new progressive churches? Why force the ramifications of their disobedience on millions of others who are not only committed to upholding the official doctrine and policies of the UMC, but to upholding the authority of Scripture and honoring Jesus Christ as both Lord and Savior?
These are interesting questions, with an even more fascinating answer.
It is the same reason terrorists hijack planes and pirates capture ships. They want something they don’t have, so they either take it, or try and position themselves with some sort of leverage to get it.
When conservatives leave a church or a denomination, they take their Bible and Jesus with them and either congregate with an existing group of believers or start a new church. For the last 40+ years, while the major denominations have been fighting to maintain unity amidst increasing internal defiance and disunity, independent churches have experienced the largest growth of Christian churches in the United States.
While leaving mainline denominations in droves, these conservatives typically haven’t seemed to need traditional churches or a denomination to legitimize them. They have believed in the authority of Scripture as written, in their own depravity, in their need for a Savior, in the atoning death of Jesus Christ alone for their sins, and in the power of the Holy Spirit to live in and work through them for the glory of the Lord God Almighty in accordance with His Word. They ARE the church, and millions have stepped forth in transformational living through all sorts of creative ministries that remain true to the autocratic rule of Jesus Christ in the life and faith of believers.
Progressives cannot leave because they have no independent legitimacy and power apart from the groups they are trying to change. Since they do not believe in the authority of Scripture, they need to hijack an official organization, like a denomination, and work to change its doctrine and policies to fit their own preferred narratives. Then, they can democratically use the rule of law to impose their new constructs on others, not because they are right and true, but because enough of them voted together to pass their reformist legislation.
This same tactic in other denominations has ultimately resulted in denominational splits. The commandeered organization eventually capitulates from within, welcomes the soldiers of fortune as the new power brokers, and together they work to maintain denominational traditions, and promote reformulated heritage, cultural relevance, and new and improved paths to salvation.
Some may ask, “What, if anything, can we do to get them to give up and leave?”
Again, interventionists face similar questions when dealing with hijackers and pirates. But, by the time incidents like these are inaugurated, the antagonists are usually very committed, often enough to literally die for their cause.
By this point, Oliveto and others are not new to acts of defiance. They sincerely believe they are right, their cause righteous, and the case decisions in their favor only a matter of time.
Oddly ironic, throughout hijackings and their aftermath, progressives will claim that they are the true purveyors of tolerance and compassion. Meanwhile, they often exhibit mocking intolerance of those they interpret as poor ignorant fools clinging to the old ways, and seem to prefer a path where everyone goes down with the plane, rather than compassionately giving up, getting off, and going a separate way themselves.
Many Methodists are familiar with founder John Wesley’s quote from Thought Upon Methodism written in 1786, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”
At this point, the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which the people called Methodists first set out is corporately, as a denomination, at best, profoundly damaged.
What lies ahead remains to be seen, but, at the moment, United Methodism has been hijacked. And one of the hijackers has been elected to the leadership team tasked with finding a solution.
K. Lynn Lewis serves as President of The Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas and is the founder and President of InspireUSA: Celebrating the Best of America®. A seasoned entrepreneur with a diverse professional background in business, education, and ministry, he is the author of Boss Like God: A Blueprint for Elite Workplace Performance (2018), Meat and Potatoes for the Soul (2013,2015), Plight (2015), and Christian Communication in the Twenty-first Century (2002), and producer of What a Dig and Shiloh Network News video series.