As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. (John 7:38b-43)
One rhetorical question Christians ask on a regular basis is, “Are we being faithful?” The fundamental answer is, “not yet, but we are trying.” John Wesley spoke regularly about how human beings are “being perfected in love in this life,” but this was an honest acknowledgement that we are not yet perfect. We are flawed and weak of will, and for this reason we need a Savior. This is why we need Jesus.
But the author of the gospel of John returned regularly to a clear human failing: even with Jesus, we do not always agree, and things do not always play out the way God intends. God’s grand vision for unity and oneness as the incarnate body of Christ for the world is regularly undermined by our human penchant for disagreement and debate.
United Methodists who have represented our global church at General Conference have first-hand experience of disunity within the fellowship. We find creative ways to discuss and debate just about anything you can think of. And yet, this is what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ, as Paul reminds us in Philippians, “to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12b) Our reality is that different groups of United Methodists discern God’s will for the world and the church differently. Some feel that God intends we be one in Christ, reflecting Paul’s vision in Philippians 2:1-5, “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” Others are more persuaded by words attributed to Jesus in Luke 12:49-53, “‘I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;” where not everyone belongs together. All of us wrestle with our baptismal covenant and the theology of our communion liturgy which asks the Holy Spirit to “make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry for all the world.
We have come to a critical crossroads in our life of faith together as United Methodist disciples and stewards. Some have determined they can no longer abide a denomination committed to full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ peoples and who hold a more inclusive and progressive interpretation of scripture and an adaptive and expansive theology. There is a heartfelt desire and need for a more historic and traditional interpretation of the Bible with a stricter and clearer defining theology.
Others have decided they can no longer wait for The United Methodist Church to get its act together and actually love and affirm all of God’s blessed children, created as they are in God’s image without judgment, condemnation, and hate. They are seeking a Biblical faith and theological frame that recognizes that the Holy Spirit is alive and at work to help us move from a mythic/magic interpretation of the Christian faith to a transcendent awareness of God as love.
While we may debate various points of doctrine, polity, and theology, almost everything boils down to our interpretation of the authority of Biblical interpretation and our defining discernment of God’s Holy Spirit at work in the world and church today. We seemingly cannot agree.
For this reason, some United Methodists have banded together to launch new denominations – the Global Methodist Church (https://www.globalmethodist.org/) and the Liberation Methodist Connexion (Home - Liberation Methodist Connexion (thelmx.org)) – that offer people an option if they feel The United Methodist Church is no longer the best fit for their sense of belief, behavior, and belonging.
The United Methodist Church is still proclaiming an invitation to full inclusion and the offer of God’s unmerited grace and unconditional love to all people regardless of race, gender, language, ethnicity, sexual orientation, caste, class, education, economic status, or culture. We remain committed to serving all of God’s children and creation. Our leadership seeks to live into a unity and fellowship grounded fully in the power and strength of God’s Holy Spirit.
I want to also make sure everyone is aware that our General Conference has been postponed a second time due to the global pandemic, and we will (hopefully) gather in Minneapolis, Minnesota to figure out our future together or apart. We openly acknowledge the many challenges facing our church, but we also confess that what is impossible for flawed and well-meaning human beings is always possible for God through the power of the Holy Spirit. This will be a Holy Conference, worshipful work, regardless of disagreement or debate. I am calling on all Wisconsin United Methodists, regardless of your allegiance to the existing or new denomination to hold General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and the future of our church and witness.
It is never easy to break apart, to separate and go our own way. Relationships are precious, fellowship is essential, and we often believe that our covenants are forever. There will be pain. There will be grief. There will be loss. But this is part of life; we face such partings all the time. How we separate, how we unite, how we disagree, and how we speak of one another is critically important. Let us pray that regardless of the future that unfolds, we may travel through with the utmost grace, kindness, compassion, mercy, and love as possible, truly trusting that God will walk with us all, every step of the way. Thanks be to God!
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).