Renfroe: The Titanic sails at midnight


At its most recent meeting, the Connectional Table (CT) voted 26 to 10 to recommend radically changing global United Methodism’s position on marriage and sexuality (see “Dramatic Changes Proposed,” page 30). The Connectional Table — a leadership council for the UM Church — will be sending its recommendation to the 2016 General Conference. Termed a “Third Way,” the proposal is similar to “A Way Forward” authored by the Revs. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter.

Rob Renfroe President and Publisher of Good News

Rob Renfroe
President and Publisher of Good News

Both plans would allow each individual annual conference to determine if it will ordain practicing homosexuals as pastors. And both plans would allow UM pastors to marry gay couples. The Hamilton-Slaughter plan allows individual congregations to determine if pastors will be permitted to perform gay services on their premises. The CT plan leaves the decision completely to the pastor’s discretion. The authors of these two proposals see them as attempts to create a compromise that will allow United Methodists to navigate our differences regarding marriage and sexuality and keep the denomination together. Unfortunately, both plans are terribly ill-conceived and will result in the opposite of what their authors intended. Below are some of the problems inherent with the plans.

1. Neither plan is a compromise. In a compromise both parties receive some benefit. Both of these plans provide progressives with (a) the ability to ratify their positions wherever they presently have sufficient votes and (b) the promise that they can continue to bring these issues to every annual conference until they win. What do traditionalists “get” out of this compromise? Nothing except the knowledge that (a) they will have compromised their principles and (b) the certainty that they will be forced to debate this issue every year at their annual conferences. A “compromise” that provides no benefit to one side is no compromise.

2. Both plans would make many pastoral appointments difficult if not impossible. One bishop told me that there are only three churches in his episcopal area that would accept a pastor who has performed a same-sex wedding. But he has many pastors who would perform such services. As soon as they do, he said, these pastors would become virtually unappointable. Another bishop, not a conservative, told me that allowing individual pastors to determine if they will perform gay marriages would be “a nightmare” in terms of making appointments.

3. Both plans would bring the heightened tension of General Conference into our annual conferences and into our local churches. If you have been to General Conference, you know the tension created when the delegates address marriage and sexuality issues. It is an emotional and sometimes hurtful experience for some of the delegates and observers. Thankfully, it happens only once every four years.

However, both plans would bring this divisive experience into our annual conferences every year. In addition, it would pit pastors and laypersons against each other. They will then be expected to work together on various boards and committees throughout the year.

Furthermore, issues of sexuality will become the all consuming issue at many annual conferences for years to come — not evangelism or discipleship or helping the poor. These controversial issues will drain the spiritual energy out of many of our annual conferences until traditionalists finally determine that they have much better things to do with their time and resources.

Even worse, once church members realize they can lobby to have their local congregation marry gay couples, parents of gay children will want their sons and daughters to be married in the church they grew up in. Traditional lay members will be forced to choose between voting against their principles or voting against their friends who want their children to be married in their local church.  I cannot imagine how hurtful and painful this will be both for traditional members and for parents of gay children. Bringing this eventuality into our congregations will be disastrous.

4. Both plans will cause many of our traditional members to leave our congregations and the UM Church. For many traditional members their position regarding marriage and sexuality is directly related to their view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. If we change our position, many traditional members will believe that the UM Church has denied the Word of God and will feel compelled to leave the church. In fact, many pastors will feel forced to leave the denomination and will do all they can to take their congregations with them.

Any plan that asks traditional Christians to deny what the Bible teaches is not a plan to keep the church together — it is a plan that will divide the church. If General Conference adopts either of these plans, the UM Church will split — and not amicably. There will be incredible animosity and potential lawsuits. The Episcopal Church has tried 91 such cases and it has cost that denomination between $40 and $60 million. Both of these proposed UM plans will guarantee that the same costly litigation will take place among United Methodists.

5. Even if traditionalists accepted either plan, it would not end the battles regarding marriage and sexuality. Progressives have been forthright in stating that they cannot compromise on “marriage equality.” They see it as a civil right, a matter of justice. Some progressives have been even more critical of these plans than conservatives because they believe that the plans seek to keep the denomination together by denying justice to gay persons. Both of these plans ask traditionalists to agree to a “compromise” that will not solve the issue, stop the debates, or put an end to the progressive agenda to change the UM position on sexuality. These plans simply move the starting point for the next debate closer to what progressives desire and further from the traditionalist position.

6. Our African brothers and sisters would be disenfranchised. United Methodists in Africa have told us that changing our position will be disastrous for their witness. It will grant the moral high ground to Islam when it comes to sexuality in the eyes of Africans. Our brothers and sisters have asked us not to put them in this position. Even if traditional Christians in the United States could live with either of these plans, the Africans will not be able to.

7. Both plans require a change in our UM polity. We United Methodists have long enjoyed the sense of unity that our Wesleyan polity has provided. We are not individual congregations; we are a connectional denomination held together by our doctrine, our discipline, and our Wesleyan heritage. These proposed plans are huge steps toward a congregational model of polity that we have always found unappealing.

8. Both plans give homosexuality a preferred status in comparison to other issues that divide us. Although United Methodists disagree on a number of issues, we do not begin any of our positions with statements such as “we are of divided mind,” “we are seeking more light,” or “we agree to disagree.” Nor do we allow individual pastors or congregations to determine their own positions. For example, we do not allow freedom of conscience regarding infant baptism or women in ministry — both of which I support but both of which have less clear biblical support than does the present UM position on marriage and sexuality.

We should determine what we believe the Scriptures teach, engage in holy conferencing and then, asking God’s wisdom, vote for the position we believe is most faithful. And in fact we have done just that for more than 40 years, but one side persists in raising the issue over and over again, despite the damage it is doing to the witness and the membership of the UM Church.

The fact that so many are willing to propose such ill-conceived plans tells us the hour is getting late for the UM Church. The plans proposed by the Connectional Table and Hamilton and Slaughter are a way forward — but only in the sense that the Titanic was making its way forward as it approached the iceberg that sank it. It may be midnight for the UM Church, but we do not have to set sail with either plan.

There must be a better way forward — and there is. We can accept all people and affirm the truth of God’s Word. We can be people of compassion and conviction. We can care deeply about our confused culture without conforming to it. We can have our hearts broken for the sexually broken without compromising what the Scriptures teach.

When grace and truth were incarnated in our Lord Jesus, he saved the world and transformed lives. And if his way becomes our way forward, God can again use the UM Church to transform broken lives, heal wounded souls and save those who are drowning in a sea of confusion and sin.

Rob Renfroe is president and publisher of Good News.


Originally published at

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