A Recipe for Reformation: Scripture, Tradition, and the Future of the United Methodist Church

At his trial for heresy (known as the Diet of Worms) in 1521, Martin Luther claimed he would recant his beliefs if his Roman Catholic accusers could prove he was wrong using scripture alone to the satisfaction of his conscience. In so doing, he set the DNA for Protestantism ever since.

Protestantism is based on the belief that Christians should be allowed to interpret the Bible for themselves and follow Christ as their conscience dictates. Accordingly, there is no adequate way to reconcile deeply held differences in matters of conscience within Protestant denominations.

Within Roman Catholicism, a higher emphasis on church tradition often places the collective conscience of the church, as discerned through church tradition, above the individual conscience of each believer. Therefore, a Roman Catholic person might well disagree strongly with the Roman Catholic church’s position on a deeply held matter of conscience, yet feel they are exhibiting a high degree of integrity by remaining in the church and acquiescing to the church’s position. In their mind, they are displaying humility by placing the collective two millennia of church wisdom ahead of their own opinions.

Not so for a Protestant. A protestant must look themselves in the mirror each night and ask if they did everything they could to witness to Christ as their own individual conscience dictates. Not surprisingly, while Protestants (of which I am a very proud one) all believe in the primacy of scripture for doctrinal truth and the need to follow one’s own conscience, Protestants have never been able to agree closely enough on matters of doctrine to prevent denominational splits and vastly different theologies from emerging. And this is why, within United Methodism, there is now a recipe for the reformation.

For the past 52 years, the United Methodist church has wrestled with LGBTQ inclusion. While the church’s official positions have generally ruled LGBTQ practices as outside the bounds of Christian teaching and excluded LGBTQ persons from holding some of the highest offices in the church, there have always been significant voices of dissent – voices which now articulate the viewpoint of the majority of United Methodists within the United States.

Upon becoming more involved in these discussions as a delegate to the 2012, 2016, 2019, and now 2020 General Conferences, I initially understood myself to be a unity guy. I wanted to find a way to allow people of diverse perspectives to follow their conscience within our existing denomination. I listened and listened and listened to my friends on the far right and the far left and in between. And when I finally heard what they were saying and quit trying to get them to say what I wanted them to say, it caused me to change from a unity guy to an amicable separation guy.

What I finally heard loud and clear was that I cannot ask others to stay in union with one another or with me when doing so would violate deeply held matters of conscience for them. And even though I might interpret a certain issue as not worthy of splitting the church over, if others interpret it as such and remained convinced it is so after prayerful reflection and holy conversation, then I must respect their position. To state it plainly: I no longer wish to be in union with those who do not wish to me in union with me or with one another. When couples come to my office to share they are considering divorce, I often ask them if they have gone to every conceivable length to try to save the marriage. I have found if they have done so, then often divorce, while always tragic, may be the best option. But if they have not done so, then it is likely their divorce will haunt them for many years to come even if it might ultimately be the best thing. I believe within United Methodism we have now gone to every conceivable length to remain united while respecting one another’s conscience without success. To further attempt to do so, would only distract us from the mission we all share: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

If we are to all move into the future focused on making disciples rather than the infighting of recent decades, then we must do so under a plan devised and agreed upon by leaders representing the diverse constituencies making up the United Methodist Church. The recently released “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” seems to meet these standards. This is why, after my initial reading of the protocol, I find it to be the most feasible, respectful, and hopeful proposal put forward to date to help those currently within the United Methodist Church move toward a future in which they can focus fully on making disciples.

I encourage you to read the Protocol for yourself – along with the press release and FAQs which accompany it. I know there are many details to be discussed and that no group of leaders can fully represent the diversity of a denomination. This protocol, if passed and enacted by General Conference in May of this year, will cause some painful moments within local churches (my own included), however, our current impasse is already causing plenty of such moments. The local church leaders I speak with tend to want some definitive gracious action to take place, so we can all move forward. This is why I believe this protocol gives us the best opportunity to move into a future where we can witness to Christ with clear consciences and exhibit in our policies and procedures the respect we claim to have for one another.