The United Methodist Church, with 80 million members, is undergoing a schism centered primarily around LGBTQ+ equality.
Conservatives hold to a “traditional” understanding of sexuality and marriage, while progressives advocate for all Methodists’ inclusivity and equality.
Founded within the Church of England during the 18th century, brothers John and Charles Wesley founded the “Holy Club” while attending Christ Church in Oxford. They studied the Bible, prayed and worshipped together, all with the hope of deepening and furthering their faith.
After arriving in the United States as missionaries to colonists and indigenous peoples, the Wesley brothers returned to England three years later. Under the tutelage of Moravian Church leaders, John made a profession of faith that “Christ alone” was the only declaration needed for salvation.
After John died in 1791, the movement that was based primarily upon a methodical following of faith and practice officially evolved into a denomination. However, unity of faith began to crack with the growing calls for emancipation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Wanting to take bold actions in decrying slavery and demanding emancipation, Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and others established the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia (1787). AME churches remained theologically Methodist but advocated for the end of slavery and the emancipation of slaves.
For the most part, GMC will remain theologically Methodist. However, they will remain committed to the “traditional” view of marriage and sexuality, meaning that LGBTQ+ Methodists will not be allowed to be married in their churches or ordained for ministry.
While any schism within any religious body is sad to witness, splits based upon conscience can also lead to hopeful futures.
The Christian church experienced numerous schisms through its 2,000-year history, filled with marginalization, persecution and violence. However, years afterward, historians can now see the hope that was directly birthed from those difficult days.
In the last 1,000 years, the church faced two major schisms that set the tone for today. The Great Schism of 1054 and Protestant Reformation of 1517 were challenging moments in the church’s history, but outcomes from both ushered in new understandings of God, the Scriptures and the practice of faith.
While the divisions were extremely disappointing – and violent at times – they tilled the ground for new growth to emerge. The late theologian Phyllis Tickle described these moments as “rummage sales” in her book, The Great Emergence, observing that they have taken place roughly every 500 years.
The church routinely needs to evaluate, analyze and discern theological conclusions and timely issues in order to push itself forward into new futures.
Whether decentralizing ecclesiastical power across Europe or theological conflicts addressing salvation, these “rummage sales” have allowed for a new generation of Christians to push the boundaries of orthodoxy in the hopes of learning more about God’s relationship with humanity.
Each time, the church grew more relevant to the social order and obedient to Jesus’ call in bringing “God’s kingdom (rule) on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
As another “rummage sale” emerges during this 500-year cycle, vital decisions are being made that will affect the direction and future of the church.
In my own Baptist tradition, we have fallen to schism with great angst and heartache.
After the Southern Baptist Convention split, another generation of Baptists emerged to push boundaries once again. As a result, I was able to find a community practicing love for all, freedom for all and justice for all.
As Methodists face an inevitable split, they enter this moment with saddened hearts and shattered memories.
As sad and difficult as this moment is for them, I hope they can recognize that their schism is but a microcosm of a larger schism within Christianity right now.
The Christian church is attempting to decide its future.
Will the church be an organization clinging to “traditional” ways, unwilling to see new perspectives and movements of the Holy Spirit?
Will the church be a people more concerned about orthodoxy than loving our neighbors and opening our arms to inclusivity?
Will the church continue its downward trek towards global insignificance because of a desire to hold on to power and control?
The emerging church will look and sound different in the future. New leaders are rising all around us, taking Jesus’ words seriously and implementing them across the world. Love, freedom and justice will be paramount in this new era of the church.
The emerging church stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before, always open to the movement of the Spirit and courageous enough to let love lead.
The future of the Methodist church is unknown at this point, but my prayer and hope for them rests in the radical, inclusive gospel of Jesus.
With all of Christianity evolving before our eyes, I count it an honor to live in this day when drastic changes take place.
In these moments, we see the hinges on which the future of the church swings.
My hope is that it continues to swing towards Jesus and his love and inclusion of every child of God.
CEO of Good Faith Media.