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Article ["A House Divided"]
Did Not Fully Portray United Methodist Church

by Mark Tooley, Institute on Religion and Democracy, June 3, 1998

In his May 31 article ("A House Divided"), Don Lattin compared a liberal and large inner city church with a conservative and much smaller suburban congregation. Both are affiliated with the United Methodist Church, which is America's third largest religious body and a denomination Increasingly divided over theology and sexuality.

Glide Memorial Church of San Francisco, with its racially diverse several thousand members and charismatic pastor, was portrayed as lively and concerned about the poor. Mission City Church in Silicon Valley, with its two hundred traditionalist worshippers, came across as stodgy and anachronistic.

The article was fascinating, but it did not fully capture the situation in our nation's largest mainline denomination. In thirty years, United Methodism has lost almost three million members, now standing at 8.5 million. Theological liberalism may draw a crowd at Glide Memorial, whose dynamic minister of 35 years can entrance his audience with stirring political oratory.

But elsewhere, the leftist politics and theology of Glide, in the hands of less colorful pastors, is suffocating what once was America's largest denomination. Growing Methodist congregations are almost always theologically conservative, centered upon the Gospel. United Methodists in Georgia, for example, where two conservative bishops preside, now outnumber all Methodists in California, Oregon, Washington and the Rocky Mountains states put together.

The bishops and clergy of the Pacific and Mountain West are among the denomination's most liberal. California's two bishops, including Bishop Melvin Talbert of San Francisco, have presided over some of the steepest membership declines in the church's history. Talbert, as the article mentioned, has recently said he will defy the church's prohibition on same-sex wedding ceremonies. Politically outspoken on issues dear to the secular Left, Talbert is less inclined to act on his ordination vow to safeguard the church's theology.

The article compared the progressive instincts of Bishop Talbert and Glide's Rev. Cecil Williams to 22 "fundamentalist" Methodist pastors in northern California who would like to leave Talbert's jurisdiction and form their own governing body. Use of the word "fundamentalist" was unfortunate. The term summons up images of Middle-East terrorists or Appalachian snake dancers. In modern usage, it has lost most of its original theological meaning and is now an epithet for religionists who live out their faith in a supposedly primitive or dangerous fashion.

Neither is true for the 22 Methodist pastors who are distraught over Bishop Talbert's refusal to uphold his own denomination's standards. The pastors are orthodox Christians who adhere to traditional beliefs about God and the Bible that have united Christians across the centuries. Unlike Talbert or Cecil Williams, they are Wesleyan because they believe the church's good works and social justice depends ultimately upon sound doctrine centered upon the lordship and deity of Jesus Christ.

Williams, who long ago removed the cross from Glide Church's sanctuary, claims that his congregation follows the spirit and example of John Wesley, Methodism's 18th century founder. But Wesley claimed that the Cross was the only remedy for "the loathsome leprosy of sin." As to Wesley's attitude towards biblical authority, he described himself as a "Bible bigot" who followed the Scriptures "in all things, both great and small."

Wesley transformed British and American Christianity by insisting on the primacy of biblical authority and personal salvation, while at the same time engaging in social work among society's poorest. He expected both strong faith and strong works by the early Methodists. The Methodist circuit riders who crisscrossed the American frontier making converts were faithful to Wesley's legacy.

Sadly, many modern United Methodist leaders are not. Bishops, seminary professors and national agency bureaucrats stridently promote a plethora of secular causes, from gay rights, to radical hminlsm, to abortion advocacy, to apocalyptic environrnO m, while downplaying or ignoring the central tenets of the Christian faith.

Consequently, the largest (and reliably left-wing) church lobby in Washington, DC belongs to the United Methodist Church. Consequently, the church's missions agency has more headquarters staff than overseas missionaries. Consequently, local pastors who insist on upholding traditional Methodist beliefs are marginalized by bishops who have other agendas.

Don Lattin's article understandably questioned whether the "same religion" was practiced at Glide Memorial and Mission City. The answer is: probably not. one adheres to historic Christianity. The other, by its own admission, prefers a secular vision of "justice, liberation, power and peace."

Most United Methodists have more in common with Mission City Church. A recent poll published by the denomination's own publishing house showed that nearly 70 percent of the church's members call themselves "conservative" and believe the Bible is inerrant.

Unfortunately, many of these church members despair of ever again reclaiming their denomination for the historic faith. Every week, another one thousand people leave the United Methodist Church with no new influx of members to replace them.

There may indeed be a crowd at Glide Memorial in San Francisco. But more typical across the nation are liberal-led United Methodist congregations whose expansive structures are now nearly empty, except for a dwindling number of gray-haired loyalists, who remain despite their conservative beliefs.

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