The Rev. Stephen W. Rankin.Photo by Hillsman Stuart Jackson, © Southern Methodist University.
As 2021 creeps along under the burden of COVID-19, the future of the denomination appears to have moved further into the future, unless the May special session of General Conference does something to alter things. The agonizing question about whether we should separate nevertheless remains upon us. Two major opinions — one with a big-tent vision for staying together and the other contending that the time has come to part — continue to circulate.
I think it is time to separate. As Genesis 25 says of Rebekah’s twins, we are like two nations struggling in the same womb.
Underneath discussions about how to understand specific scriptures on sensitive ethical questions are fundamental differences in the way we construe doctrine. We come at the church’s mission from entirely different starting points.
On first glance, the “stay together” position, with its emphasis on the organization, seems to rely on a sociological understanding of “church” that downplays the juridical force of doctrine. It makes this case by arguing that the current entity, with some structural modification, must endure for the sake of our mission. This sentiment pairs with the conviction that cultural variations require flexibility and freedom of interpretation for people to maximize missional effectiveness at the local level.
What does that flexibility look like on the ground? We find there such a wide diversity of understandings of faith and practice that some contradict others. The rhetorical strategy at work in the “stay together” position inevitably reveals how differently we think about the nature and function of doctrine. If, for the sake of contextualizing the mission, local leaders have the option of soft-pedaling, reshaping or even ignoring our church’s core doctrines, then we have no doctrines that we consider truly central and normative for the whole denomination. If so, then others, myself included, who do think that we have specific normative doctrines must limit our expectations about adherence to them.
Functionally, then, the “stay together” view replaces one set of norms — our core doctrines —with another set of norms, beginning with the formal one: “Doctrine is of secondary importance to mission.” This starting point has radical implications for all our other doctrines as we find them — for example, in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.
With apologies to our sisters and brothers in other parts of the world, I think it is a worthwhile exercise to consider how American Christian young people hold up a mirror of ourselves to us. For data, I refer to "The Twenty-Something Soul" by Tim Clydesdale and Kathleen Garces-Foley. Two chapters, one on mainline Protestants and the other on evangelicals, hold special relevance. The authors use these terms as demographic categories, not ecclesial identifiers. United Methodist young adults populate both groups, and they think about and pursue the Christian faith very differently.
They share some similarities: Both strongly agree that their faith is important to them and they lament that there is far too much negativity and judgmentalism in the church. They also place big stock in pastors’ preaching.
The differences, though, are pronounced and dishearteningly instructive, revealing the fault lines in our denomination.
The two groups hold opposing theological views that bear out in how they practice their faiths. Evangelicals value worship attendance more than mainliners and a much higher percentage attend regularly than mainline young adults. Evangelicals testify to a strong sense of God’s personal and active guiding presence in their daily lives. The authors observe, “[Evangelicals] share an unwavering commitment to Jesus Christ as savior and to the Bible as God’s revelation.”
Mainline young adults, on the other hand, like it that their congregations don’t pressure them about worship attendance. They pick their churches for the welcome and sense of community and for commitments to justice efforts that match their values. They think of God as a spiritual force, not as a person. They reject “literalist” interpretations of the Bible, but also admit that they don’t read it that much. Contrary to seeing Christ as savior, mainliners value Jesus for other reasons. They believe that it is important — virtually a moral imperative — to have freedom to choose their own religious beliefs. Drawing from several religious traditions is an acceptable option in belief formation.
These descriptions of evangelical and mainline Protestant 20-somethings reveal two visions of the Christian life that simply do not go together. These young people would willingly visit one another’s churches, but they would not join. Their beliefs and values are simply too divergent; they effectively participate in two different faiths. They mirror our differences because they are part of us.
The objection that their differences prove why we should adopt the “stay together” position fails to acknowledge how doctrine works. More importantly, we can see on further reflection that the initial, surface-level sociological understanding of “church” falls away to reveal a dominant working theology. Unless someone can show otherwise, this normative view legitimizes ultimately opposing views of the Christian life.
Is worshipping God as Trinity truly optional? Is Christ as God Incarnate, crucified and raised from the dead as the center and source of the world’s salvation, not fundamental doctrine? Any faith answering yes to these questions is not the historic, ecumenical Christian faith believed, confessed and practiced around the world and across time. It does no good to keep arguing about specific matters of polity if we don’t share a basic common vision of the Christian faith.
We have demonstrated repeatedly that we United Methodists do not all share the same faith — no matter how sincere and culturally valuable certain interpretations may be. I feel only grief in saying so because the path we are on creates all kinds of heartache for people at the local level. Nonetheless, we must be clear about what we believe and who we serve. In that vision, mission is born.
We all answer to the Judge of all who will examine what we have built. May we keep this measure in mind as we humbly, ever so humbly, labor to sort out United Methodism’s future.
Rankin is an author, retired university chaplain at Southern Methodist University and director of the Spiritual Maturity Project.
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