A strategic moment looms in the 280-or-so-year history of the people called “Methodists.” Our history began with Charles and John Wesley’s transformational conversions in 1738 and then flourished in the Wesley’s passion to “reform the nation, particularly the church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” The Methodist movement exploded into a great awakening that revived Europe and infused the wave of American expansion with pioneering evangelists who founded a Methodist church in nearly every emerging settlement long before McDonald’s was a gleam in Ray Kroc’s eye. Methodists published the most widely-circulated periodical in the United States in 1830 in a format that set the style of mass communication in the nation and across the world even to this day. Since then, Methodists have continued to plant churches, educational institutions, health facilities, humanitarian and other ministry organizations worldwide, positively impacting millions of people and tens of thousands of communities across the planet.
Yet, the United Methodist version of the denomination is embroiled in turmoil and has a meeting scheduled to address specific elements of it. The looming question is this: How will the United Methodist leaders who meet February 23-26, 2019 at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference scheduled to be held in the Dome of the America’s Center Convention Complex in St. Louis respond to this monumental crisis at this moment in time?
Will these United Methodists choose to implode the 50-year old version of the denomination outright, celebrate the good, mourn the miserable, bury the dead, and move on each with their own? Will they officially opt to become “untied” Methodists and divide into evangelical and so-called “progressive” baskets like other denominations who have already passed this same juncture? Or will these Methodists honor the conversions and mission of their founders, remember the words of God, stand boldly for what should be stood for and bravely against what should be stood against according to the holy Scriptures and the founding documents of the United Methodist Church?
Perhaps they would choose unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and love in all things were it not for disagreements over the definitions of “essentials” and “non-essentials.” But, this argument is as old as the Scriptures themselves, even older. Satan’s first recorded words twisted God’s instructions and cast the first shadow of doubt across goodness, innocence and beauty (Genesis 3:1).
By the time of Noah, Satan’s influence caused such wickedness on earth that God perceived that “every inclination of the thoughts of the heart was only evil all the time,” and He grieved creating people at all (Genesis 6:5-60). God responded by creating a nation of people through which all the earth could be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3), and appointed leaders – patriarchs, priests, prophets and prophetesses, and even kings – to lead people and nations in righteousness and truth.
Yet, God has had to continually challenge the waywardness of His own leaders. Jeremiah conveyed this message to God’s people, “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak with visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, ‘The Lord says: You will have peace.’ And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, ‘No harm will come to you.’ But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and their evil deeds (Jeremiah 23:15-17, 22).”
Isaiah voiced dismay that his own people were a “sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption. They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” (Isaiah 1:4). He warned specifically, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20).
Malachi admonished religious leaders by reminding them that “the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge and from his mouth men should seek instruction because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty. But you have turned from your way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble” (Malachi 2:7-8). “You have wearied the Lord with your words,” he writes. “How have we wearied him?” they ask, and he answers, “By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them” (Malachi 2:17).
Just as Malachi had prophesied (Malachi 3:1), John the Baptist appeared preaching a continuance of the message prophets had preached for centuries, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” and “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath! Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:2, 7-8).
Jesus followed His forerunner and began His ministry with this message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matthew 4:17). Rather than “I’m okay, you’re okay; all is good, we’re born that way,” the Messiah responded to the lies of Satan, the cries of Jeremiah, the warnings of Isaiah, the admonitions of Malachi, and the preaching of John by offering salvation to all who believe in Him and confess His name, who love him and evidence it by obeying his commands. Because “there is no one righteous, not even one” and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:10, 23), Jesus sacrificed Himself to meet the requirements of God’s justice and holiness and proclaimed, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
This is the Savior Methodists have historically proclaimed. Methodists have also traditionally stood firmly with co-founder, John Wesley, a self-proclaimed man of one book. He preached, “The Christian rule of right and wrong is the word of God, the writings of the Old and New Testament; all that the Prophets and ‘holy men of old’ wrote ‘as they were moved by the Holy Ghost;’ all that Scripture which was given by inspiration of God, and which is indeed profitable for doctrine, or teaching the whole will of God; for reproof of what is contrary thereto; for correction of error; and for instruction, or training us up, in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). This is a lantern unto a Christian’s feet, and a light in all his paths. This alone he receives as his rule of right or wrong, of whatever is really good or evil (Sermon #12, “The Witness of Our Own Spirit”). Wesley described his rule of life and faith this way, “My ground is the Bible. Yea, I am a Bible-bigot. I follow it in all things, both great and small” (Wesley’s Journal, June 5, 1766).
The past history and traditions of Methodists are already written. The looming questions, soon to be answered, are these: What portendeth our future? What rules of life and faith will Methodists choose to follow, and what will they proclaim, now? When the rays of the sun rise over the Sea of Galilee in Israel, cast their first light over Wesley’s Chapel and tomb in London, and glint off Gateway Arch in St. Louis on the morning of February 27, 2019, what will the world see and hear of Methodism in the light of that day? And how will we each respond?
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.