The Uncomfor(ming)table Middle in the #UMC

Stripped image of John Wesley

Stripped image of John Wesley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I was moving out of the cult of fundamentalism to a more robust and liberating faith, an Australian pastor, Mark Stevens, advised to me to refrain from being as liberal as I was once fundamentalist. I am eternally grateful for that piece of insight. Of course, the reverse is true as well. I know of a pastor who was once an extreme liberal but now is as conservative as he was once liberal, even to the point of fundamentalism.

I am equally happy that I found the particular United Methodist Church I did. I detail some of this in a recent Sunday morning sermon:

There are plenty of UMC churches that are not so familiar with the middle. Rather, there are many on the far right and many on the far left. Hal Taussig is a United Methodist minister who has created a “New New Testament.” He preaches a Gospel far, far removed from even mainline Christianity. Then there are those churches who believe the Gospel requires a fundamentalistic lockstep into legalism, with no room for disagreement. In fact, some of these pastors have taken to forums to suggest any who disagree with their interpretation of Scripture must repent.

Between the two extremes of sheer human arrogance lies a middle that is refusing to conform to unlikely expectations. On the issue of gay clergy and gay marriage, for instance, many feel that it is acceptable and within Scriptural limits — yet, because of the covenant-ing nature of the connection they feel likewise that the Book of Discipline must be followed for those clergy who break with the covenant. You can imagine the position this puts the middle in. We are the loyal opposition because we do not believe in schism.

Let me stress this point. Many of us believe that Scripture is primary and as such, our authority in guiding the Church and the Christian. We just disagree, given new facts (via Reason), with the previous interpretation that homosexuality is a sin.

One of the things I’ve thought about since engaging with the vileness on some of these forums is the Catholic Church and their sense of unity. Rome has core doctrines and views. Yet, there are plenty of Catholic groups proposing change. However, they are all still Catholic. I do not want to paint a rosy picture of how these groups worship together while seemingly working a part; however, I believe that the focus on the Eucharist helps to shield many of these groups from the desire to rip each other to shreds. I am not sure we have such a thing. The views of the Eucharist in the UMC are pretty far ranging, from Zwingli to Hahn. Further, we have different views on a variety of issues. But, our central view is that God’s Grace is free to all. Perhaps we should focus on that.

There have been calls for schism within the United Methodist Church. This has happened before in American Methodism. In the days before the War Between the States, the southern Methodists went their own way in order to protect slavery. Let’s not kid ourselves. Even after the union in 1939, the old Methodist Episcopal South still remains as the bastion of conservative evangelicalism within the UMC. The resistance to challenging slavery, the resistance to women ordination, and the resistance to progress in Civil Rights generally hails from one specific area. Further, it was this area that gave rise to the Evangelical Methodist Church. And it is this same area that today has a resistance to full inclusion. Schism only allows extremes to develop. Schism is not viable and I still maintain, unbiblical.

Please do not get me wrong. I do not think that all pastors who believe homosexuality is a sin are against women ordination or are for slavery. Rather, there is a same intellectual tendency to hold tightly to the past. Liberals have an intellectual tendency to fling away anything that smacks of the past.

I further do not believe separation is the key either. Rather, what I do believe is that we need to teach the power in covenant and the responsibility to uphold that covenant. The Book of Discipline is not simply document from a bygone era, but that which makes us Methodist. Yes, it has changed and will change, but to discard it is to create extremes. We need discussion. Separation and Schism will prevent discussion because it provides for us a way to isolate ourselves from being challenged. In teaching the duty and obligation to the covenant, we are in a real sense teaching the duty and obligation to the local church, to the family, and even to God.

I cannot help but call attention to the fact that the so-called bible belt has the highest rates of divorce. Perhaps it is because there is no obligation any more to the covenant. The use of “covenant” has lost all meaning. Thus, when changes occur, people react selfishly and rush to leave, forgetting that a covenant is not merely about uniting in agreements but uniting even in disagreements.

And thus I return to Mark Stevens and his advice. He demanded that in my liberalism I remain challenged unlike I was in my fundamentalism. If we isolate ourselves from discussion, we will become the extreme. If I had isolated myself from conservative elements in Christianity because I was coming from a far right sect, I would have done great damage to myself and my faith. I did not. I, instead, found a rather uncomfortable middle. From there, from the notion that iron sharpens iron, my faith has grown. I want to be challenged by conservatism and liberalism. As such, I do not believe separation or schism offers any positive notion, but instead will help to further stifle American Christianity.

Post By Joel Watts (10,051 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity

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17 thoughts on The Uncomfor(ming)table Middle in the #UMC

  1. Ultimately this is, in my opinion, why the church is in decline. It’s not that the people have left the church, it is that the church has become so entrenched in two extremes that most of us don’t fit in that in a very real way, the church, as an institution, has left its people.

  2. The problem with early 21st century Christianity can be summed up by Mark 3:25. This difficulty is personified by a certain reasonably affluent UMC church – which shall remain nameless to protect the guilty – located in a dense, diverse, and massive metropolitan statistical area. The congregational cleavage is so profound that the old money congregants have exiled their more liberal brethren into a separate worship service conduced in the church’s fellowship hall. As might be expected, this divorce of Christian convenience is doing little to attract new members.

    While the church’s traditionalists want nothing to change, the progressives realize the mid-20th century status quo is dead on arrival in the early 21st century microcosm of mankind. For one thing, the old money crowd is just that. They are, for the most part, older, decidedly more rigid, and completely unconformable with the too many of “them” and not enough of “us” world in which they find themselves. Perhaps their only saving grace is being sufficiently aware that if they cut the purse strings, they will kill the church!

    On the other hand, the church’s progressives tend to be a little younger – although by no means exclusively so. They tend to be better, and most certainly decidedly better educated. As a result, they tend to be more ecumenical and energetic. Some are, by more sanctimonious standards, barely Christian. Yet, despite their often profound flaws, they tend to be their brother and sister’s keepers.

    As might be expected, the local bishopric finds it difficult to fill the pulpit. While one previous pastor was perceived as being too liberal by the traditionalists, his revivalist replacement found his hells of fire-breathing dragon-like manner equally ill-suited to minister to the broader needs of the church and its various programs. Yet, within this congregation resides all the ills of current spectrum of Christianity.

  3. Joel, I appreciate your words here and your link to our post at Via Media Methodists. I think it is to the benefit of the church for those of us in the “unconformingtable” middle to begin to self-identify and try to get beyond the current polarization. Thanks again and blessings on your ministry.

  4. I too appreciate your words! Not long ago to be in the middle was easy and comfortable; now the middle position is viewed by the extremes as too much of o non-conformist position for them to take! I was rejected by churches who deem me as “too Calvinistic for the Charismatic” and others that labeled me “too Charismatic for the Calvinist” whereas we all know that both terms are conflicting and one can’t be both, in spite of John Piper’s positions. As a no-conformist myself I often am afflicted with the “slice of bologna” syndrome knowing that I will get to be squeezed and get bitten and chewed from both sides!

  5. Maybe for a stable table-middle, you need some tightened wing nuts on both the left and right side of the table. But I certainly hope UMC is stable. You are starting to scare me.

    • Gary, I think it is stable, for the most part. Both extremes will all leave, etc… but the middle, a vast majority of us, will stay.

      • I try to remain optimistic about that possibility, but I do worry that the middle will be so beat up once the smoke clears that we won’t be of much use past putting the pieces back together.

        • From my standpoint, if the pastors keep the politics out of the sermon, I call live with almost anything. I wouldn’t be involved in any “leadership” decisions anyway. But I walk, if I see the politics enter the pulpit.

          • Of course, I have to be realistic, and truthful. I walk, if I disagree with the politics. If I agree with it, I will probably say nothing, but secretly be smiling. Guess that makes me a hypocrite. But what the heck, no one is perfect.

          • It is impossible to keep politics out of the pulpit. While the pulpit politics may not be of the Replicratarian variety, it nevertheless there. One person’s brother’s keeper is another redistribution of wealth or, even worse, welfare. Politics will defiantly come into play if the “wrong people” or those “not our type” start sitting the “reserved” pewe seats on Sunday morning.

            Change the order of worship, hymnals, carpet, location of the organ – or, God forbid, who’s playing it – and politics inevitably rears its head. Who occupies the pulpit is very much a political decision.

            Practically speaking, churches, mosques, and temples function as second tier political organizations. Although seldom movers and shakers, they largely exist to collimate thoughts and actions of the masses. Freethinkers are often regarded as hell-bound heretics and a threat to good order. In this regard, churches are no different than other organizations or associations.

  6. “Know more than I should” comment…”It is impossible to keep politics out of the pulpit”. I was referring more to overt politics. Not so much covert politics from the pulpit. The variety I walk from is the Jim Garlow, Tony Perkins, David Jeremiah, or Franklin Graham type, along with their organizations. It surprised me at how much influence from them leaked into my old church’s sermons. Plus Fox News and revisionist historians from Wallbuilders.

    • There are also the disciples of Chuck Baldwin pushing for open anti-501(c)(3) rebellion in the pulpit. At the same time, it isn’t so much the pretty boys in the pulpit that constitute the core difficulty. Rather it is the deep pockets standing silently behind them.

      • ” the pretty boys in the pulpit”…I like that. Seems like their real pulpit is the TV broadcast. Cast your net, and increase your power and money. And all the little old ladies on a fixed pension swoon, and send in their checks. I am amazed at all the little old ladies that love Franklin, David, etc.

        • I would go so far as to suggest there is even an ideal persona for more successful cathode cathedral clergy.

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