By H. O. Tom Thomas, President, Evangelical Fellowship of Virginia
Bishop John Yambasus’ mediation team released January 3, 2020 the widely publicized ‘Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation’. The result of long negotiations of traditionalists, centrists, and progressives, it calls for “restructuring the Church through respectful and dignified separation’ (Article I: 2).
Reflect with me on six significant reasons this agreement is so historic. The settlement foresees an epochal moment not seen in the history of Methodism since the nineteenth century. We have not seen a fresh reinvigoration of Methodism since the nineteenth century break-offs of Free Methodists, Wesleyans, Nazarenes, Salvation Army or even the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and Methodist Episcopal Church.
We do not want to miss the forest for the trees. Since the concord is a compromise, there are downsides which will adversely affect our people and churches both here and in Africa. We must resist the temptation to pick it apart. Celebrate it for its broad strokes. Let me share why this agreement ought to be supported.
1) At General Conference 2019, the Traditionalist Plan prevailed. Tightened policies of accountability were set to kick in January 2020. Is not this an indication traditionalists are in the driver’s seat to exercise positive, accountable governance over the church? We rejoice in another re-assertion of the last eleven General Conferences. However, as I have been arguing for the last five years, is it reasonable and realistic to expect the same bad actors that spurn Scripture’s final authority and have defied the law of The Book of Discipline for years to submit respectfully now to the umpteenth decision of General Conference? No. In fact, their resistance has only become more open, more determined, more calculating and more vehement.
Consider the following: forty percent of our Annual Conferences are on record stating they will not abide by General Conference’s 2019 decision. How many more are quietly inclined the same way? A number of annual conferences openly ordained practicing homosexuals last spring after General Conference 2019 with little real consequences. Sixty five to seventy percent of the US 2020 General Conference delegates are not traditionalists. All but one general church agency was for the One Church Plan. The National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church advocated for the One Church Plan. In a survey done, the majority of the Council of Bishops affirms homosexual practice ought to be allowed in our church. Let us face it, no matter what General Conference passes, United Methodism’s United States corporate leadership is in lockstep and they hold the cards. The Traditionalist Plan is the law de jure, the law written on paper in our book. You would never know it. The One Church Plan is the de facto lawwhich is the law really in effect across the United States Connection. The One Church Plan is the law in force and is the one which in fact governs the Connection.
If our Church’s leadership will not conform itself to millennia of the unanimous witness of God’s Holy Word, and will not give credence to the consensus of thousands of years of Jewish and Christian commentary, then will it submit to the human voice of The Book of Discipline? Can leopards change their spots? The hope of doubling down on accountability and completing the work on the Traditional Plan this General Conference 2020 is a pipe-dream. Strong, effective accountability across the denomination has not happened in eleven General Conferences. It will not happen after General Conference 2020. The will of the United States corporate leadership is not there to enforce accountability, now or in the foreseeable future. The Protocol is historic because it will break this anarchy!
2) Perhaps the most monumental reason for supporting the Protocol is that Bible believing Christians can be set free from the oppression and reign of sin. Many may not know, but John Wesley used the following principle to determine when persons should separate from the church. John Wesley said when one is asked to do what Scripture forbids, or forbidden to do what Scripture positively commands, one has a ‘bounden’ duty to separate. Specifically, if you cannot ‘continue without sin’, you must separate ‘without delay’. I, for one, cannot continue in the United Methodist Church without continuing in sin! There must be resolution or else! With the Protocol, Biblical Christians can now be free of the complicity of accommodating themselves to a church advocating that pastors and people live in sin. The Protocol will allow the formation of a new church where believers may worship the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in spirit and truth and in good conscience. This makes the Protocol historic!
3) The Protocol agreement is to date the best way to leave the sin and still have a place to go! It is the best way out for a way in. It is an Exit Plan with an intentional designation! Explicitly, the Protocol offers local churches an opportunity without harassment to choose to be a part of a new traditionalist denomination and take with them all their property and assets free and clear. There is no apportionment payment expectation and no fees. Of course, each new denomination will have to fund its share of retired pastors’ pensions. Evangelical pastors and churches have been longing for years for a plan that allows their churches to be in a church where Scripture is truly honored! This is what the historic Protocol agreement allows!
4) Centrists and Progressives by the Protocol have moved to a position of acceptance of “separation”. This is striking! Even after General Conference 2019, centrist leader Tom Berlin was not interested in working with the Evangelical Fellowship and Wesleyan Covenant Association here in Virginia on a joint Annual Conference resolution for General Conference for ‘amicable separation’. Centrists consistently over the years assume the vast majority of United Methodists are ‘centrists’. Centrists’ working assumption is Traditionalists and Progressives are fringe groups. Annual Conference delegation votes reported last summer only confirmed them in the view. Centrist and Progressives, which traditionalist leaders confirm, report sixty five to seventy five percent of United States delegates going to General Conference in 2020 are pro-homosexual practice.
The traditionalist coalition, the Renewal and Reform Coalition, has also done the math. In spite of those figures, Traditionalists have the votes – by a whisker – if everything goes right – to vote in our legislation. It is too close for confidence. In the past leading Centrists and Progressives, bishops included, have premised that a plan of separation would concede too much – assets, agencies, infrastructure, and local churches – to minority interests (conservatives). The fact that those who have been entrenched in the views of theological diversity in unity above all are conceding ‘separation’ cannot be underestimated! They are legitimizing a term which is loath to them. By entering into a pact with traditionalists they are implicitly recognizing the Wesleyan Covenant Association movement which for them is illegitimate and schismatic. The Protocol is truly historic!
5) Since 1972, the vast majority of United Methodist clergy today have ministered in a United Methodist church conceived in the construct of ‘doctrinal pluralism’. ‘Doctrinal pluralism’ (not to be confused with racial or ethnic pluralism) affirms that diverse theologies should live in Christian unity. ‘Doctrinal pluralism’ is a false construct wrongly attributed to John Wesley which was introduced in 1972 into the newly founded United Methodist Church to make it a theological ‘big tent’ smorgasbord. Our Church turned away from its long connection to historic Methodism to become a church of many diverse, contradictory theologies. Doctrinal pluralism now forty eight years later has become a way to justify ‘any belief goes’, e.g. even ‘queer theology’.
Regent University professor Dale M. Coulter observes the Protocol represents the death of doctrinal pluralism. He calls doctrinal pluralism a ‘failed experiment in Methodist unity’. The Protocol now offers Traditionalists, often the victims of pluralism for almost two generations, a way to be a part of a church where a clear consensus on vital Gospel truths promotes heartfelt preaching of Jesus Christ as the Savior of sinners! Evangelical UMC pastors have never known such in their ministerial careers! The Protocol offers a truly historic new beginning!
6) One of the most common responses to the Protocol by Traditionalists is ‘The United Methodist Church is our church, why should we leave?’ As one put it, the Protocol feels like an ‘eviction’ notice to Traditionalists. We are having to give up our name, our Discipline, our assets, et cetera. Because of the ‘optics’ of the Centrists and Progressives keeping the UMC name and the structures, many persons view the agreement as Traditionalists leaving the church. Let me speak to this in two parts, A and B. (A) Let’s keep in mind the Protocol’s text: ‘the undersigned propose restricting the United Methodist Church by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person’.
Giving up the name ‘United Methodist’ and its logo of ‘cross and flame’ is a sticking point for Methodists. Especially in Africa and in the Central Conferences the name is revered and respected. Here in the United States, not so much for a significant section of Traditionalist clergy. In polls of Traditionalist clergy leaders over the years, the great majority feel the name has become a liability. Furthermore, our boards, agencies, and seminaries have become such entrenched strongholds of progressivism they would do better in the hands of the Centrist and Progressive ‘post-UMC’ church. Quite honestly, many Traditionalists feel our brand is almost beyond redemption. It has become sullied with its association with the affirmation of homosexual practice and other liberal views. Traditionalists believe we need to re-brand ourselves for future effective evangelism and church growth. Moreover, Traditionalists envision a new church with a much leaner and much less expensive structure. The Protocol gives us this chance to start afresh! This is an historic opportunity!
(B) Many Traditionalists are lamenting that it is we who are having to leave ‘our’ church. What do people mean ‘our’ church? Do Centrists and Progressives have less claim to the church? Have they put in less time, effort, sacrifice and financial support? Do they not consider the United Methodist Church ‘our’ church too? Even though since 1972 our church has maintained the same position regarding the practice of homosexuality, ‘doctrinal pluralism’ has otherwise allowed persons with crazy, heretical doctrines to call United Methodism ‘our’ church too! We have co-existed with mutually exclusive, pluralistic theologies and are all calling the same church ‘our’ church! Since the 1972 reception of theological pluralism an argument can be made Traditionalists do not have the exclusive right to call the UM church ‘our’ church. We have been sharing it with many people of disparate theologies.
There is another reason to hold the possessive ‘our’ lightly. Ask yourself: whose Church is it? Is it mine, or yours, or ‘ours’? It is Jesus Christ’s Church. He is the Head of the Church for whom He shed His blood. As you think about buildings, assets and the like, think about how Jesus dealt with the first century Jewish Temple and the Jewish institution of his day. As he entered the Temple, he attempted to cleanse it and reclaim it as the One with the rightful authority. ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer…’ Jesus said (Matthew 21:13). It was His house and He the One for whom it was founded. If it could only have been. Jesus’s battle line was not in fighting over a building or temple structure or institutional infrastructure. Though rightfully His, Jesus was content to leave it all to the scribes and Pharisees. “See, your house is left to you, desolate” he said. One could argue that for the idolatrous love of the structure and institution the Jewish Establishment missed Jesus! Jesus let them turn ‘his’ house into their house. Letting it go, Jesus did a new thing in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Both of my great grandfathers, George R. Stuart and John P. Pettyjohn, had significant roles in establishing Lake Junaluska. Lake Junaluska may very well be a casualty in the separation and no longer in ‘my’ church. Nevertheless, the price one pays to be God’s own people, a holy nation, and a chosen race to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ is worth it. We say with Moses, Jesus is worth more than the treasuries of Egypt! The Protocol agreement is an entrée to renewal and revival. In fact, it may even be the final fruit and realization of the heartfelt prayers for renewal and reform begun in the 1960’s.
For these reasons, the Protocol agreement is truly historic! Though disruptions are coming and friends will be victims, the Protocol proposal is an epochal moment in Methodism the likes of which we have not seen in one hundred and fifty years! Support it!