“If We Are Going to Chase People Away From the Church, Are We Still The Church?”

Years ago, I had a young man come to me in tears.  He and his wife were divorcing after 10 years of marriage with 3 children together.  There was no affair or abuse: they “grew out of love”.  He told me, “no one is innocent in this…she just had the guts to walk away.”  It was a tragic situation.  But it grew worse.

He had been teaching a youth Sunday school class at their church.  He loved it.  They were a couple of strong faith even in the midst of their marriage falling apart.  The church he was attending was her family’s church.  Her parents had been there most of their lives. The preacher visited the young man.  Using the Bible, he told him, “you can’t teach our young people anymore since you are getting a divorce.”  The young man tried to explain to no avail.  He accepted the decision.  But then, at the end of the conversation, the pastor said, “you need to leave this church.  The Bible is clear: a man cannot divorce his wife.  We cannot allow you to remain unless you repent and reconcile.  And…her family was here first.”

The young man came to see me since we knew each other.  We prayed and shed tears.  It wasn’t long before he drifted out of church completely.  To this day, he still won’t attend church because of the harm done.  I share this not to point to the pastor, or the young man, or the wife, or her family…I share it simply to show that there are times we close the doors of the church to people.  When we do, are we still the church?

Last weekend, Bishop Mande Muyombo of the North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo (a conference with over 2,000 churches) humbled everyone at Lover’s Lane United Methodist Church last Saturday with a radical statement about what it means to be conservative and an amazing confession.  (I strongly encourage you to watch these two videos.)  Following his confession, the entire colloquy gathered together to ask for forgiveness for their actions as well.  He asked a question that has echoed in my heart all week: “If we are going to chase people away from the church, are we still the church?”

Bishop Muyombo is a traditionalist.  He does not agree with same-sex marriage.  But he is obviously wrestling with God’s Word – as many of us are – regarding exclusion of any of God’s children.  African, Filipino, and other international United Methodists want to keep the church unified even though they disagree with the practice of same sex marriage (there are some who want separate the church as well).  The same thing is occurring in our US United Methodist churches.  The difference is this: those on each side of this issue believe the other side is radical.  The choice seems binary: either leave the UMC to join a conservative Methodist Church that will exclude all LGBTQ folk; or stay in the UMC where the liberals will lead the church toward no truth, no beliefs, and no values.

This binary choice is false.

First, a new traditionalist Methodist Church does not feel they are “chasing away” LGBT folk.  They will welcome anyone and everyone, but they will stand firm that LGBT lifestyle is a sin and those practices cannot be lived out, blessed, or allowed in their church.  This will be a church of traditional non-compatiblists.  It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church does not mean it will become a raging, liberal, socialist (please feel free to fill in any word here that may scare you if you are a traditionalist non-compatiblist) church.  On the contrary, as Bishops Muyombo and Yambasu (from Sierra Leone, who convened the recent Protocol separation plan) make clear, the UMC will remain a church with great diversity and contextual flexibility.  This will be a church of traditional compatiblists, centrists, moderates, and progressive compatiblists. It won’t be a church for everyone, but it will be a church centered on Jesus and God’s Word.

It is deeply distressing that our church feels it must split, but I for one am ready to return all my focus and energy on making disciples of Jesus Christ!  And I want to be part of a church that doesn’t chase anyone away.

Chapelwood and the Future of The United Methodist Church

On Friday January 3, major news outlets reported the press release from a broad group of United Methodist leaders who have agreed in principle to a separation over the issue of human sexuality.  The Washington PostNew York Times, Christianity TodayCNN, and many others reported on the details agreed upon in the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation.  As with any news these days, some of the headlines and reporting may mischaracterize the proposed plan.  News outlets and Bishop’s statements also don’t reveal how the potential separation may impact our local churches.  I want to share a few clarifying statements and give clarity on how this potential separation could impact Chapelwood UMC.

First, let me give you the simple synopsis of what this agreement means. I encourage you to read the actual protocol in the link above and read some of my previous blog posts about the Indianapolis Plan to give you background on some of the rationale for decisions.

  • This plan is not a final decision.  It is a plan being submitted to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church for deliberation in May 2020.  There are some agreed upon principles within it, but keep in mind – only the General Conference can make decisions affecting the United Methodist Church.
  • This plan will allow the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that would disallow same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons.  That new denomination would be formed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) and would follow their newly proposed Book of Doctrines and Discipline for a New Methodist Church.
  • This plan would allow for the continuation of the United Methodist Church.  The UMC would remain intact with our Book of Discipline.  The only difference is that the restrictive language disallowing same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will be removed.  Each pastor, local church, and annual conference would decide whether they would do weddings or ordain clergy.
  • This plan allows churches, annual conferences, and central conferences to choose if they want to remain in the United Methodist Church or leave to join the new, traditionalist Methodist denomination.  All churches would keep their properties and assets.
  • Finally, the plan calls for an immediate moratorium on all charges/complaints addressing restrictions in the Book of Discipline related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings.  While someone could still file charges, the agreement calls to hold the complaints in abeyance until the agreed upon separation is finalized.  This will allow churches and pastors to begin living into ministry as they feel called.

How Does All This Affect Us at Chapelwood?

I love Chapelwood United Methodist Church.  We are a diverse community of faith that loves Jesus.  We impact the world for Christ in many different ways.  We are made up of multiple worship communities who each live out Christ’s love in contextually relevant ways.  Chapelwood, Mercy Street, The Center for Christian Spirituality, Fair Haven, Upper Room, Generaciones, and Oikon Chapelwood each seek to embody God’s grace as we receive it to all who need it!  Our pastors reflect ethnic and theological diversity.  At Chapelwood, we don’t agree on everything.  But we do agree on the essentials of the faith – the orthodox tenets of Christianity which we find in scripture, reflected in the Christian creeds (Apostle’s, Nicene), taught in John Wesley’s sermons and notes on the Old and New Testament, reflected in The General Rules of the Methodist Church and in our Articles of Religion.

If you have listened to me preach or speak at all over the past 6 years, you know that I believe the central focus of the Bible is this: God’s love seeks to renew humanity through Jesus Christ.  The life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the primary way we see God intersect with the world.  If you want to know what God would do in any given situation, look to Jesus.  In Matthew 9, Jesus says, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’  For I have come not to call the righteous but sinners.”  The truth is we are ALL sinners.  We must all learn what Jesus means when he says he desires mercy over sacrifice.

The church must be open to all.  No one should be told they do not belong at the table with Jesus Christ.  The issues of same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons will continue to be debated in the United Methodist Church.  There will be a lot of theological diversity within the UMC going forward, as there has been in the past.  You can be a part of a family with different views.  I just completed a week with my family in town arguing religion and politics!  We don’t agree on everything, but we love each other and we would never break fellowship over our disagreements.

There are many resources that address the different views Christians have on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT persons. One that I have found enlightening is a one-hour video by two friends and fellow professors at Candler School of Theology at Emory University – the Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson and the Rev. Dr. Kendall Soulen.  There is also a 30-minute follow up Q&A where they list their biblical references again.  They are friends who offer differing perspectives of Biblical interpretation regarding marriage within Christian communities.  I love the fact that they are friends and co-workers who engage in intellectual dialogue with different perspectives of scripture.  They engage in this conversation with love and kindness.  I hope this will be a model for us at Chapelwood.

Final thoughts:

  • As senior pastor, I want it to be clear that I will be leading Chapelwood to remain in the United Methodist Church.  There are two primary reasons for this.  First, the new traditionalist Methodist denomination will be very different in structure, practices, and beliefs from the United Methodist Church that exists today.  I included a link above to the new Book of Doctrines and Discipline for this church.  The changes are far more than simply disallowing same-sex marriage.  Simply put, leaving the UMC would deeply change Chapelwood’s identity, structure, practices, and beliefs.  Second, remaining in the United Methodist Church fully embraces who we are and what we have always stood for as Chapelwood.  We believe in embodying God’s grace to everyone!  Everyone is welcome to join us at God’s table as we struggle peacefully to live out our lives of discipleship.  We won’t do it perfectly, but we will be the kind of family that welcomes everyone!  Our leadership is aware of our direction and is supportive.  I have stated to our leadership on many occasions that Chapelwood will not make a hard right or left turn theologically.
  • In 2020, there will by many opportunities – dialogues, classes, and small groups – to discuss the differing ways we read and understand scripture.  We need to engage in conversations about the differing ways we read the Bible.  We need to grow in our Biblical literacy on ALL issues.
  • I encourage you to meet with any of our pastors (and even retired pastors) to discuss this issue with them one on one.  Our pastors have differing views on homosexuality, but we are all supportive of Chapelwood and we are all supportive of remaining in the United Methodist Church.  We love living in a diverse community of faith.
  • Chapelwood will continue to be a church made up of people with differing beliefs on the issue of homosexuality.  Life in community can be messy.  I’m okay with that.  We are a church filled with differing political opinions as well.  But, we are also of one mind when it comes to God’s kingdom work and the impact we make for Christ Jesus.
  • Our missional focus will not change.  We will continue to make disciples, embody grace, and impact the world.

Please be in prayer for our church and all our members.  I am praying for peace, understanding, love, and kindness.  I am also praying for calm in the midst of storms.

Look for opportunities coming soon to engage in further discussions on the future of Chapelwood and the UMC.  I am really excited about The Impact of Generosity sermon series in January and know that God will bless us as we engage in our annual stewardship campaign.  I look forward embodying God’s grace with you.