by Bob Phillips
Jesus warned us in his unforgettable way. “Why do you go ballistic over the splinter in your neighbor’s eye while remaining mellow about the log in your own” (Matthew 7:3)? The issue is holy, honest self-criticism. One observes that among many groups and high-visibility individuals attacking the COVID vaccination, self-criticism seldom appears, i.e., “Here’s some uncooked ideas my point of view needs to digest.” This is not new. In his classic history of the AIDS outbreak in the US, And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts rightly targeted an indifferent federal government response as a main culprit in the spread of the disease. He also documented the negative reaction of numerous gay leaders to the public health recommendation to close bath houses, where multiple encounters of unprotected sex with anonymous partners also was contributing to the spread of AIDS. Science was questioned and gay leaders who called for bath house closure were themselves attacked as self-haters, ‘monogamists’ and allies of Jerry Falwell religion. Thousands of gay men were infected and died needlessly thanks to this opposition. Shilts offered wisdom on the motivation for the opposition. Among a class of people who had known years of rejection and oppression, self-criticism understandably was not a priority virtue.
In his insightful book, Denial, Richard Tedlow of the Harvard Business School points consistently to the lack of self-criticism and refusal to accept truthful but painful information as a common feature among organizations in decline or on the cusp of demise. Truth and facts are rejected because they come from an unwelcomed source, because they do not embrace official company narratives, or because the implications of responding to such criticism would involve more change than those in leadership care to admit. Consistent with Robert Quinn’s now classic, Deep Change, many reject the profound change needed by the organization to attain what matters most in exchange for the fragile but ultimately doomed status quo of simply ‘tweaking’ what matters now and mislabeling such as real change.
Both the Post-Separation United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church will face tough and unflattering realities in their formation and re-formation. The temptation highlighted by Jesus has been and will be working overtime to focus on the flaws of “them” while overlooking or rationalizing the warts of “us.” Neither expression of 21st century Wesleyan Christianity can prosper if self-criticism is suppressed or ignored. Both new expressions have their best chance for vigorous futures if the beast is named and tamed. Constructive self-criticism is crucial to a healthy future for individuals, families, marriages, organizations, political parties…and for the existing UM church and its leadership in any future expressions.
Questions for the GMC
I offer a list of questions that each church can use as part of a vital but difficult self-critical approach to the current situation and future possibilities for a PS-UMC and a GMC. Since I write as one who embraces a Wesleyan evangelical view, more of my time will be focused on potential GMC issues, even though (as Jesus made clear) there is more carnal fun in whacking the ‘others.’ Recall the late Southern Methodist evangelist, Sam P. Jones, whose powerful preaching in the 1890’s-1900’s included vigorous calls for repentance to drinking-smoking-greedy-gluttonous Methodists. When asked why he didn’t use sermon time to beat up on Catholics and other ‘obvious’ sinners, he replied, “By the time I’m done with the Methodists, it’s bed time.” Well, yes.
The Global Methodist Church will face the following five temptations that healthy self-criticism can assist in defining and addressing. Obviously more than five exist, but these are examples of challenges that will be immediate, sustained and significant, especially if rationalized or ignored. First is the question of where to draw theological boundaries of belief. Wesley’s words apply: “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” The GMC has made clear that clergy who reject such as the bodily resurrection of Jesus will be out of work. Amen…but what notions on the inspiration of scripture will be labeled contrary to the root? What of doctrines concerning sanctification, what happens spiritually in holy communion, what does believer’s baptism mean relative to infant baptism? Is it acceptable to affirm the full inspiration scripture while rejecting Calvinistic notions of inerrancy as of secondary importance…or not? Unconventional thinking and heresy are not the same thing. How will the GMC live into that distinction?
Second is the question of where to draw boundaries of practice? Will the recreational use of alcohol and other drugs be forbidden, discouraged, or morally neutral? Numerous Wesleyan evangelical pastors affirm the validity of infant baptism but (ahem) haven’t baptized an infant in years. Numerous churches are blunt that they do not want a female pastor. While many GMC churches will use apportioned dollars for mission work that is more meaningful to their congregations, others likely will use the freedom of reduced apportionments to chop any meaningful support to ministries outside their own walls. How will the new institution respond?
Third is the question of social witness love of neighbor. Two Methodist bishops wrote Martin Luther King while he sat in a Birmingham jail, advising a go-slow approach that brought a classic statement of church social justice in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Numerous churches and clergy, encouraged by the dramatic slicing of the wordy Social Principles and the Resolutions, would prefer a denomination without a vocal social witness on any subjects other than abortion. One need not buy into political left-wing spin on social issues to claim a vigorous and public prophetic ministry that speaks in Jesus’ name to issues affecting those on the margins. J.D. Walt reminds us Jesus was always political but never partisan. Will we follow His lead?
Fourth is the question of practicality and wishful thinking. Wishing time travel doesn’t create time travel. Wishing a denomination with a much smaller Discipline, 3500 church plants in 7 years, reduced financial support for a general church, more say of local churches in pastoral assignments and the like sound great. Realistic challenges are not met effectively by “wish upon a star” strategies. What specifics and infrastructure will empower non-seminary trained clergy in the proposed quicker track toward elder or deacon status while retaining quality control? Both the devil and a viable GMC future are in the details.
Fifth is the question of attitude. While challenges undermining the UMC are far more than sexuality, numerous evangelical Wesleyan churches seem to make the rejection of gay marriage and clergy as the make-or-break issue, which is a basically negative appeal. Granted that others with agendas are happy to pin such labels on the WCA and the GMC, how can the GMC clearly self-identify in profoundly positive and Christ-center ways, rather than be known as the church that is against this, that or the other? If perception is reality, much work remains. “Taste not, touch not, handle not” (Colossians 2:21) is not the Holy Trinity of the GMC!
Questions for the Post-Separation UMC
For the brothers and sisters in Christ who align with the post-separation UMC, similar self-critical questions apply (and yes, both sides of the aisle are brothers and sisters in Christ). Consider, briefly, these examples. First, what will be the boundaries for theology? If the GMC will need to struggle with where to loosen up, the PSUMC will need to engage where to tighten up. For example, will it be an acceptable option to interpret the resurrection of Jesus from the John Brown perspective, whose ‘body lies a-moldering’ in the grave, but his soul goes marching on?’
Second, what will be the boundaries for practice? Our British colleagues recently blessed both same sex marriage and sex outside of marriage, making the boundary categories for holy actions words like ‘adult’ and ‘consensual,’ the authority. How can pastors and churches who embrace traditional views on marriage minister comfortably in a denomination where opposition to certain behaviors is framed as the moral equal to racism, bigotry or dangerous ignorance?
Third is the question of what it means to love God? Love of neighbor and social action/witness will and should be emphases for the church. Christ as Lamb of God whose love was shown supremely in his atoning death for sin on the cross is an increasingly neglected aspect of love of God and love for God. How will the church avoid drifting toward an identity as a community social action group with religious by-laws? If the right is tempted to diminish the ‘love of neighbor’ side of the Great Commandment (and it is), is the left equally tempted to reinterpret love of God in sentimental and moralizing ways, reducing Christianity to registering as a Democrat and “being nice to Grandmother and the cat” (W.E. Sangster)?
Fourth is the question of practicality and wishful thinking. The American UMC is in a sustained and profound decline. Without an equally profound vision of change, the decline will continue to accelerate. Where does loyalty to the system end and loyalty to the Titanic begin? Other than changing church teaching on issues of sexuality, what specific re-formation of organization and practice will the PSUMC embrace?
Fifth is the question of attitude. Numerous conferences in the conservative American Midwest and south have many progressive-centrist clergy, bishops and leaders…but “self-avowed, practicing evangelicals,’ are bordering on extinction and irrelevance in leadership capacities in nearly all center/left conferences. How will the PSUMC practice theological inclusion toward clergy and churches that are willing to remain UM but embrace a clear evangelical Wesleyan faith?
The application is simple. If you are traditional/evangelical, focus on the questions for that camp. If you are progressive/centrist, congratulations on reading this piece! To all, recall and embrace the gift of holy and honest self-criticism as part of faithful discipleship and a flourishing future for Wesleyan Christianity in its multiplied future expressions, and all to the glory of God.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)