On Friday, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (UMC) — the denomination’s highest court — upheld the key provisions of the Traditional Plan, the conservative policy upholding traditional Christian teaching on sexuality, and upheld the “Gracious Exit” policy, enabling dissenting liberal churches to leave while still holding on to their property.
These decisions finalize an unprecedented move in increasingly liberal mainline Protestant denominations. The Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have rejected the traditional Christian teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman and that homosexual activity is sinful. Liberals in the UMC wanted that denomination to move in that direction, as well.
Yet in February, in a special meeting of the UMC General Conference, the denomination passed the conservative alternative. White liberals accused black Africans of using bribery to uphold the traditional Christian teachings, but no evidence of any such activity came to light. No, the conservative position prevailed, fair and square.
In recent decades, as mainline Protestant denominations started rejecting the clear teachings of scripture, many congregations decided to leave. My church, the Falls Church Anglican, left the Episcopal Church in December 2006, following Nigerian bishops who remained devoted to the Bible. The Episcopal Church had ordained openly homosexual clergy, but it also had firmly rejected the Bible’s teaching that Jesus is the only way to reconciliation with God and eternal life.
While the congregation — not the Episcopal Church — owned the church building (with a history tracing back to George Washington), the denomination claimed the building. In 2012, the Supreme Court awarded the historic property to the Episcopal Church. My congregation lost the building, worshipped in school auditoriums, and only recently raised enough money to construct a new church building, which is still under construction.
The UMC move to allow dissenting congregations to keep their property is extremely generous, given this recent history. While liberal denominations fight tooth and nail to take property away from local congregations who wish to uphold the Bible’s teaching, the conservatives in the UMC not only upheld biblical teaching on sexuality but also approved a plan to let dissenting congregations leave the denomination with their property intact.
Many have attacked the UMC policy as “anti-LGBT,” but the policy explicitly holds to the principle of “inclusivity” in addition to Bible teaching on sexuality.
“The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth,” the policy states. “All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, upon baptism be admitted as baptized members, and upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith, become professing members in any local church in the connection.”
Yet the UMC does not cave on the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual activity.
“The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church,” the policy states. “Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.”
In defending the Traditional Plan, the UMC’s Judicial Council struck down seven of the 17 petitions, leaving the most influential policies intact. Clergy who engage in homosexual activity or identify themselves as actively homosexual will be disciplined when the plan comes into effect next year.
The Traditional Plan defines a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a person who is “living in a same-sex marriage, domestic partnership or civil union or is a person who publicly states she or he is a practicing homosexual.” Such persons are not eligible for leadership in the United Methodist Church.
Despite the passage fo the Traditional Plan in February and this recent decision upholding the plan last Friday, liberal members of the UMC are not yet leaving the denomination. The UMC General Conference will meet again next year, and liberals have decided they will attempt to fight back at this conference. If the Traditional Plan again prevails — as is likely — a mass exodus will begin.
When these liberal congregations decide to leave, at least they will hold on to their property — and they will not even have to wage a long legal battle like my church did.
It is tragic that Christian denominations like the UMC face such divisions. However, Christians must follow Jesus, no matter how counter-cultural His teachings are. Those who reject traditional Christian doctrine are distancing themselves from the gospel, especially if they reject the historic bodily Resurrection of Jesus or the unique saving power of the gospel.
The church should always be a welcoming place for struggling people — those with homosexual attractions and gender confusion emphatically included. However, that does not mean that churches must embrace LGBT identities and practices. Christians must preach the message of love and repentance — love and inclusion for those who struggle, but repentance from what the Bible clearly defines as sin.
Christians must constantly examine our hearts. We must offer love and grace, but without abandoning the scripture, the very basis for that grace and love. Jesus calls us to uphold traditional teaching while genuinely caring for those who struggle with same-sex attraction and gender confusion. Liberals cannot afford to reject truth, and conservatives cannot afford to reject love. Yet liberals must not pretend that holding to biblical teaching is somehow a rejection of love.
The UMC shows how conservatives can win with grace and love. Allowing liberal congregations to leave with their property is a gracious act, one befitting followers of the man who told His disciples to pray for their enemies.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.