• R.C. Muhlbaier

Why I (Still) Love the United Methodist Church, but Chose to Go

This is the third in a series of posts that I originally wrote as a way to reflect on and process my experiences serving in and leaving the United Methodist Church. These were not originally intended for others to read, but I know there are others who are just beginning to process their own experiences. It is my hope that others will be comforted in knowing that this season has been hard for many others as well. You can read the first post here and the second here.


I was raised in the United Methodist Church (UMC). My home church poured into me and supported me through some of my most formative years. I learned about God’s love for me, ultimately revealed on the cross, and God’s design for life to the full. In turn, I learned to love Jesus there. Even as I went to school and relocated to the Midwest, I worshiped in UMC congregations. My wife was ordained in the UMC and I worked on Conference staff where I learned much about the practice of ministry. I will always be grateful for the UMC and the huge impact the United Methodist connection and institution had in my formation as a follower of Christ. Even so, I now serve in the Global Methodist Church (GMC). What follows are reasons this Global Methodist still loves the United Methodist Church.


A Historic Faith


The doctrine of the United Methodist Church contains the foundational doctrine of the Church universal and some of the best of the Protestant tradition. The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church, and The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church contain the basics of orthodox theology shared by the church globally and across time in Christology, the Trinity, ecclesiology (church), sin, and salvation. The Wesleyan distinctives in the role of grace, Wesley’s 52 standard sermons, and the General Rules are proven wisdom and practice attested to by the history of the Methodist movement. Finally, the UMC recognizes the Bible as the “true rule and guide for faith and practice”, while taking seriously the roles of tradition, experience as confirmation of Scripture, and reason in engaging the Bible. Unfortunately, these doctrinal statements are not universally accepted, practiced, or contended for within the UMC.


The theological division in the UMC that spawned the GMC has roots in the very origin of the denomination. My experience with the division began in observing the ugly 2016 General Conference, the formation of the Commission on the Way Forward, and the uglier 2019 special General Conference. In 2019 I was elected to serve as jurisdictional delegate on the Indiana delegation. While serving in this role I discovered just how deep the theological divide is in the UMC. Everyone knows about the different views on marriage and ordination, but the differences of foundational doctrines are not as widely acknowledged. There is not consensus among UMC clergy on doctrines like the divinity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, and the nature of the Bible as God’s special revelation, even though these are attested to at ordination. Any group will have rogue members, but that is not the extent of the problem. Clergy who teach contrary to doctrine are not held accountable. Partly, the lack of accountability is due to the fact that these progressive theological views are also held by bishops, many seminary professors, Board of Ordained Ministry members, and powerful agency staff. The UMC’s highest leaders have not shown any interest in contending for the written theology of the church among their peers or those they are charde to oversee. Orthodoxy (small “o”) on paper is no substitute for orthodoxy in practice. Holding orthodox positions on these foundational theological matters is viewed by too many clergy and powerful denominational leaders entrusted with the teaching faith received from the apostles as “literalism”, “fundamentalism” and unsophisticated.

To Make Disciples of Jesus for the Transformation of the World


I believe in the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Jesus clearly institutes the mission to make disciples of Jesus in what is known as the Great Commission in Matthew 28. Evangelizing new believers to bring them into the Church through baptism and teaching them to live in the way of Jesus (obey) must be the core of the work of the local church that is supported by the other levels of the connection. Sadly, we have seen the results of the broad neglect of this mission in the West by not forming members into active disciples of Jesus which has led to an inward focused culture in many congregations. To be clear, this is not a unique problem to the UMC. Yet, the steady decline of membership in the UMC mirrors, even arguably out paces, the decline in the U.S. broadly.


Making mature and active disciples of Jesus can only lead to the transformation of the world. Naturally, one thinks of the world in a broad sense as members of global denominations like the UMC or GMC, but transformation happens when disciples and congregations are focused on their small corners of the world. While a local focus does not preclude consciously working as part of a larger movement or on broad social issues that go far beyond the local context like poverty, violence, and racial strife; disciples and congregations have the most tangible impact by addressing the specific needs of their neighbors and community rather than putting their time and energy into superficial advocacy.


The UMC through agencies and the episcopacy has long sought the transformation of the world to the neglect of the transformative power that comes from the Holy Spirit moving through the assembled disciples of the church. Agencies like Church and Society, The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, and the General Commission on Race and Religion, have largely adopted a postmillennial approach that mirrors the tactics of the religious right. Instead of building up the church, agencies and the episcopacy pursue transformation by seeking to leverage the power and clout of the institution of the UMC to influence law and government policy by parroting the partisan strategy and rhetoric that is popular at the time. The agencies have not been a prophetic voice in the U.S. offering a distinctly Christian perspective on the pressing issues of the day, even when one exists in the Social Principles. Instead they have often simply been content to be drowned out by a prevailing chorus. In short, for all the resources spent on these agencies there is little evidence of transformational fruit. The money and influence would have been better spent on equipping the local church to think theologically about pressing social issues and to act more locally to transform lives and communities in tangible ways.


The GMC, lacking institutional clout, will be necessarily and rightly focused on being a disciple-making movement. As a movement in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition the GMC will be engaged in addressing social issues and calling for justice in the political sphere just as the early movement did under John Wesley’s example. Yet, the focus will be on the local community and keeping local politicians accountable for seeking necessary change in a bottom-up approach. The GMC will be making disciples who transform the world.


Connectionalism


I agree with the many brothers and sisters who plan to remain in the UMC who have offered the connectional system as a reason they love the UMC. Working together for the mission of the church and the relationships that develop through a connectional system are of great benefit. The connection of the UMC creates partnerships and ministry possibilities that simply do not exist among independent churches or more loosely related networks. However, these are not the only purposes of the connectional system. Discernment, accountability and conflict resolution are also functions of the connectional system, but these functions have become inoperative or have even been discarded on some levels.


The conciliar method of church governance necessarily relies on good-faith participation. The General Conference is not only the legislative authority of the UMC, but the chief discerning body. The global nature of the UMC means that people of diverse culture and experiences come together to discern the will of the Holy Spirit on some of the most important questions facing the church and world. A lot of lip-service was given to this discerning role leading up to the 2019 General Conference. Hours and hours were spent in prayer and worship leading up to the crucial vote on the way forward for the UMC, but when the vote was complete it was clear that many had not participated in discernment in good-faith. Soon after the General Conference, bishops and even the whole Western Jurisdiction began or continued to act in open defiance of the discernment of the General Conference. Further, bishops charged with accountability to the faith as described in the Book of Discipline have neglected to carry out their responsibilities, leaving the whole connection in a state limbo. The mechanisms for discerning together and resolving differences are no longer functioning. The UMC now exists as a caricature of connectionalism.


The GMC retains the connectional nature inherent to the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. The roles of the various levels of the connection will not be exactly the same as the UMC, but the mechanisms that keep the connection together will be strengthened. The connections of the general conference, annual conference, and districts will still exist. The GMC will not be congregationalist or a pure call system when it comes to clergy appointments. Bishops and presiding elders (superintendents) will have important roles to play in the process and will still provide oversight and support. At the same time, bishops will have a limited term of service and will be more accountable for honoring their role in the denomination and a slimmed-down general church will keep too much power from drifting to the top. The connectional structure around shared theological convictions together with accountability structures will provide for a lasting and truly connectional denomination.


I did not join the GMC because I hate the UMC or out of some sort of rebellion. I now serve in the GMC because I believe it is an attempt to include the best of the Wesleyan tradition and aspects of the UMC, without the theological drifts and practices that seem to be institutionally irreparable. The UMC no longer exists in the way it was conceived or as prescribed in the Book of Discipline. The truth is the UMC will be going through significant changes to address changing theological, demographic, and financial realities at the same time the GMC is working through its growing pains. I am excited to be part of a fresh movement of the Holy Spirit rather than trying to salvage an institution that seems content to survive (for now) on its own momentum.


And yet, I say again that I do love the UMC. The general church and certainly local UMC congregations are still being used by God. There are many remaining UMC clergy and laity of various theological persuasions who love and serve Jesus well, with whom I will greatly miss being in connection. I believe there are opportunities for the GMC and UMC to partner together. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is a good example. At the local level, there will be UMC and GMC congregations serving the same communities. I look forward to seeing and participating in local partnership with our UMC siblings in Christ as we continue in our shared mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ.


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