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Central UMC Blog

The Pastor's Corner: What Really is the Issue

Posted by Dr. Steven K. Pulliam on

As Dr. Jan Davis correctly pointed out in her first writing in The Pastor’s Corner, the “main” focus of the deep divide within the United Methodist Church is upon disagreements regarding the church’s teaching on marriage and qualifications for ordination. Let me be clear that where we are as a denomination saddens me greatly. I have been in the United Methodist Church since 1976 when my parents joined in the small town where I spent the majority of my childhood and teen years. I was baptized and confirmed in the United Methodist Church. I first sensed the Holy Spirit calling me to ministry around the age of twelve. The call strengthened during my college years. Following graduation, I joined the staff of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Arkansas. I became a candidate for ordained ministry in the UMC and attended seminary to become a pastor in the UMC. I was ordained in the United Methodist Church back when you were ordained twice, as a Deacon in 1998 and then as an Elder in 2001.  To say that the United Methodist Church has a special place in my heart and life would be a tremendous understatement. Witnessing and experiencing the denomination in such chaotic disarray pains my heart. 

When the special called session of General Conference in February 2019 met in St. Louis, the conference once again reaffirmed that the definition of marriage for the church is between one man and one woman and that self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not eligible for ordination as pastors within the United Methodist Church. Added to the Book of Discipline was a greater measure of accountability for adhering to these standards. Schism within the United Methodist Church soon followed the General Conference in St. Louis, as bishops and annual conferences ignored the decision of the General Conference. All of this points to the bigger picture: The United Methodist Church has a broken system of governance. No real accountability exists within the United Methodist system for bishops who refuse to enforce the Book of Discipline. Nor does accountability exist for annual conferences who decide they will no longer live within the laws of the church. 

Again, the disagreement on human sexuality is the presenting issue of our broken system of governance. On a deeper level, however, the brokenness of the denomination exists in the lack of accountability for upholding the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. Doctrines such as the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, Jesus being both fully divine and fully human, the atonement of sins through Christ’s death on the cross, and the Resurrection, no longer remain as basic tenants of the Christian faith but options for you to believe if you so choose. Tragically, there are many bishops and pastors within the United Methodist Church who no longer hold to one or more of the basic Christian doctrines. It is my conviction, and the conviction of many others, that underlying the erosion of our system of governance is the erosion of the authority of Scripture within the UMC. 

In the early days of the Methodist movement, the Methodists were often referred to as “Bible moths.” Methodists were attracted to an open Bible as moths are attracted to a lamp at night. John Wesley referred to himself as a “man of one book,” i.e., the Bible. Wesley was not saying he didn’t read other books. He was an avid reader and wrote many books as well. What he was saying was that Scripture was primary in his life, and he expected Scripture to be primary in the lives of the people called Methodists.

In April of 1968 the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church merged to form the United Methodist Church. Both the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church were included in Book of Discipline under the section “Doctrinal Standards and General Rules.” The Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith highlight the authority of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) as revealing the Word of God and containing all things necessary to salvation. In addition, the Confession of Faith states that “the Holy Bible is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice.”[1] 

Instead of Scripture being “the true rule and guide for our faith and practice,” Scripture for many has just become another book among books or writings among writings. This was made evident when one of United Methodism’s most prominent pastors, Adam Hamilton, described the inspiration of Scripture as not being uniquely inspired. Hamilton wrote,

The Bible’s authors were inspired by the Spirit in the same way and to the same degree as many contemporary preachers and prophets and even ordinary Christians have been inspired by the Spirit in every age. You’ve likely felt moved by the Spirit, and you’ve likely heard God speak to you as you listened to a sermon, or a song, or read an inspirational book. I believe the inspiration experienced by the biblical authors was not different from our own experience of inspiration.[2] 

David F. Watson makes this astute observation: “Taking [Hamilton’s] approach, there is no theological reason that the witness of Scripture should carry more weight than experiences of the Spirit that you or I might have.”[3] Hamilton takes a severe departure from orthodox Christian teaching that lifts up Scripture as uniquely inspired by God. Historically, the Church has referred to the Bible as the “Canon of Scripture.” Canon means “standard” or “rule.” It is against the “Canon of Scripture” that we are to measure what is taught in the church, as well as our lives. But what happens if the “inspiration” I receive is in opposition to the inspired words of Scripture? If the inspiration of Scripture is of no more unique value than the inspiration I receive or at least am convinced I have received, what gets the final say in my life? When Scripture is devalued, we no longer have a true rule and guide for faith and practice. 

This, my friends, is where we find ourselves as a denomination. We no longer live under the authority of Scripture. Instead, as Scripture puts it, everyone does what is right in their own eyes (see Judges 17:6; 21:25). My brothers and sisters, we need a movement to return to the primacy of Scripture in the life of the United Methodist Church and our individual lives.

Yours in Christ,
Steve

[1] The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church 2016 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House), para. 104, “Standard and General Rules,” Articles: Article V, VI; Confession: Article V

[2] Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 294, italics in original.

[3] David F. Watson, Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever (Franklin, TN: Seedbed, 2017), 22.

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