In the last installment of this discussion the importance of Wesley’s vision for those who chose to study the Bible and religion cannot be overstated. Wesley foretold the coming challenges the movement would face when he said:
“Suppose you could not remain in the Church of England without doing something which the word of God forbids, or omitting something which the word of God positively commands; if this were the case… you ought to separate from the Church of England,”
In Wesley’s day this potential separation was from the Anglican Church and not an internal schism within Methodism, because there was no United Methodist Church. But Wesley’s view of when separation was necessary is prophetic, and many Methodists believe that the church has strayed so far from Wesley’s vision and principles that the UMC is no longer redeemable. Only a fresh start with a revival of Biblical principles was acceptable. For decades, the UMC has fought over serious issues related to social conflicts, all while the church suffered and members drifted away. The protracted fight is starting to move to a resolution and each half of the previous UMC can now focus on evangelism rather than internal squabbles.
We sat among other Methodists last week to vote on the decision to stay or leave the United Methodist Church as a congregation. There was a representative from our Conference there to officiate over the proceedings. There were no emotional speeches, no controversy, no discussion. Those days are long passed and like other United Methodist congregations it was time to decide to stay or go.
When the votes were tallied 91% of the congregation voted to move on and leave the United Methodist Church behind. As we learned later, four of the five churches in our county also voted to leave. In doing so we joined over one hundred and eighty churches in Georgia willing to leave in just this round of voting. The UMC representative from our conference seemed genuinely surprised by the vote but was polite and cordial in defeat. We also learned later that some congregations voted 100% to leave.
The bishop, and others, in the UMC hierarchy had done all they could to block the exit of these and other churches through threats, lawsuits, reassignments, and various other tactics. But in the end the issue was decided on faith and Wesley’s vision for those identifying as Methodists. A return to Wesley’s visions of a church where small groups studied the Bible, reinforced each other’s faith, and provide a reference group for the faithful may now reemerge. Although reports vary, as many as five thousand congregations may have already disaffiliated with more to come.
Like most bureaucracies, as the UMC grew so did its desire for central control by those who found themselves in power. Money and power started to supersede Biblical principles and religion. The health of the Church and parishioners began to take a “back seat” to imposition of a social agenda that destroyed the church. Wesley’s view of the value of small groups may now emerge as the preferred method of rebuilding the church.
Where will the separated congregations go now that they are no longer a part of the UMC? There are many choices available to disaffiliated congregations:
- A few will choose to affiliate with no national or international group, choosing instead to follow Wesley’s principles independently.
- Some will choose to affiliate with the new Global Methodist Church and its leaner central organization and limits on management tenure, hoping for like-minded congregations to gather once again.
- Then there are other, lower profile Wesley associated churches like The Free Methodist Church, The Church of the Nazarene, or The Wesleyan Church.
- Outside the United States the picture seems less clear with both sides claiming victory within different congregations and nationalities. It seems likely to us that local laws and mores outside the church may dictate many decisions inside the church.
The logical landing place for most congregations is either no direct affiliation or the Global Methodist Church. Congregations that believe that the Global Methodists will, in time, repeat the mistakes of the UMC are likely to seek another alternative.
Church schisms are neither painless nor easy. After associating with one organization for the life of a particular church, disaffiliation brings uncertainty, but also opportunities for positive change. It is our hope for all that the fighting will end and the business of the church, as Wesley would have wanted, will return. The old UMC and newer alternatives will have vastly different doctrines, but that is what schisms are all about.
Is this the beginning of a death spiral for the UMC? With many churches leaving the UMC it will need to reinvent itself as a leaner, less bureaucratic organization or it may die out completely from both spiritual and financial failure. In its new mission it will likely become more hard line on issues of abortion, same sex marriage, gender reassignment, and LGBTQ clergy. Not all congregations who stayed did so because they aligned with these divisive issues. Some stayed because aging populations just do not want to change or for local tradition. Some stayed because they lacked a clear direction if they left. But over time more will leave and there will be is no reason for congregations to realign with the UMC. As the remaining UMC hardens its stance on these issues more moderate or conservative congregations will become more uneasy. There may very well be a second or third round of departures. It would seem to be a one-way street with exiting taking precedent over reassociation.
Outside the United States many churches in Africa and Eastern Europe will also leave. The strings that may temporarily hold some congregations are poverty and not doctrine. Some African congregations are dependent on the UMC for school funding of critical infrastructure. But if the Global Methodist Church can fill this void, then the UMC hold over African congregations will fade. In some African and Middle Eastern nations homosexuality is illegal and, in extreme cases, punishable by death.
The UMC cannot promote homosexuality as acceptable within a worldwide doctrine in nations where it is illegal or punishable by death. Homosexual clergy is even more problematic. According to the BBC, there are sixty-four nations that criminalize homosexuality. Almost all of these are in Africa or the Middle East.
The UMC also faces another crisis for which there is no answer. Churches, unlike nations, cannot compel members to stay. If they further harden their stance on issues that brought them to the point of schism, members will just drift away slowly to other congregations, or give up on organized religion. Those who chose to disaffiliate did so knowing they were joining something new and the UMC can only offer a hardened version of what drove others away.
All the disaffiliated congregations and denominations will need to be firm in their beliefs and be vigilant in guarding their doctrines or they will slide back into the same conflicts we see today. Those who work to tear down the church never rest! Those who work to build the new church need to be just as vigilant, just as committed, and just as steadfast!
Resources Used In This Article
Anglican Church in North America, www.anglicanchurch.net Last accessed July 1, 2023
As Methodist Exits Hit 5,800, Some Churches Find Paths Blocked, By Megan Fowler, Christianity Today, www.christianitytoday.com, June 12, 2023.
Considering Methodist Options, by Tom Lambrecht, Good News Magazine, www.goodnews.org, Undated but late 2022.
Criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual acts, ILGAdatabase, Criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual acts | ILGA World Database Last accessed July 1, 2023
List of Christian denominational positions on homosexuality, www.Wikipedia.com, Last accessed July 1, 2023.
Mission, Global Methodist Church, www.globalmethodist.org Last accessed June 30, 2023.
Our Beliefs, Church of the Nazarene, www.nazarene.org
Small groups, www.methodist.org.uk, last accessed Jun 30, 2023.
The Statements of Belief for the Free Methodist Church USA, www.fmcusa.org
The United Methodist Church in 2023: Congregations Leaving and the Future of the Church, By Editor, www.ministryanswers.com, June 20, 2023.
The Wesleyan Church, Position Statements, www.wesleyan.org
Wesley’s Small Group Model for Today, United Methodist Communications, www.umc.org Last accessed June 29, 2023.
What Now? African Disaffiliation, By David W. Scott, United Methodist Insights, March 16, 2022.