Opinion

How the Supreme Court's gay marriage ruling could destroy the United Methodist Church

The ruling will like only exacerbate a growing schism within the church over homosexuality

Some Christians are worried that their churches will lose their tax-exempt status as a result of the Supreme Court's decision declaring gay marriage a constitutional right. I'm worried that my church will cease to exist altogether, or at least in its present form.

The United Methodist Church is the largest mainline Protestant denomination in America. Following decades of steep membership losses across all these historic churches, that's kind of like being the tallest building in Topeka. But only the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have more U.S. members, and the United Methodist Church's international membership is actually growing.

Almost alone among mainline Protestant churches, the United Methodists have remained committed to orthodox Christian standards of sexual morality. Clergy must be celibate when single and monogamous in marriage, which is defined as the union of a man and a woman. Methodist pastors are not permitted to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

In fact, the United Methodist Church's governing General Conference in 2004 endorsed "laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman." It passed with 70 percent of the vote. This is moving in the opposite direction of other mainline Protestant churches, such as Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and the United Church of Christ, which are among the denominations that have endorsed same-sex marriage. Indeed, some mainline churches were for gay marriage before the Supreme Court was.

But not everyone in the United Methodist Church agrees with the General Conference, especially in the United States. Even before the Supreme Court ruled, there were Methodist pastors performing same-sex ceremonies in defiance of the denomination's Book of Discipline — and in some cases they are going unpunished.

While Methodist bishops have emphasized that the Supreme Court ruling doesn't alter the denomination's position on marriage, dissenters will have more opportunities to violate church law now that same-sex marriage is permitted in all 50 states. The end result could break up the United Methodist Church.

Make no mistake: Unlike concerns about tax-exempt status, it won't be the government doing the breaking. It's actually traditionalists within the denomination who have called for an "amicable split" over these issues.

At first glance, this seems odd. Barring major structural changes in how the United Methodist Church makes policy, its teachings on marriage are unlikely to change for the foreseeable future despite the liberals' best efforts.

Conservatives like to say that the church is bigger than other mainline denominations because it is more conservative, which is partly true. But it is also more conservative because it is bigger. The other mainlines have been reduced to little more than their liberal wings.

The denomination remains strong in the more conservative American South. And the growing international membership is predominantly African and orthodox. This unlikely coalition of white Southerners and black Africans have helped hold the line on marriage.

Yet the United Methodist Church is diverse. In addition to a strong evangelical subculture, it also has a long tradition of Social Gospel liberalism that still suffuses the permanent church bureaucracy. What upsets traditionalist Methodists is that clergy in the liberal precincts of the church will not consistently be held accountable for violating formal church teachings.

Liberal Methodists point to studies showing gay and lesbian issues as being a significant factor in people leaving Christian churches. Conservatives Methodists counter that denominations that have liberalized their teachings in these areas are generally much smaller than the churches that haven't.

As a defender of the current Book of Discipline who is nevertheless tired of the constant debate over homosexuality in the church, I understand the desire for a split. But traditionalists stayed in the United Methodist Church after its seminaries went liberal, and after ordained clergy and even bishops expressed skepticism about the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ.

Not only is it problematic for the orthodox side to be seen as schismatic, it also confirms the view that the only thing evangelicals and conservatives care about is homosexuality.

And for what? The process of splitting won't really be "amicable." Congregations are generally not homogenously liberal or conservative. They will divide themselves, with the losing parties suing to try to keep their church property. It is likely that fewer people will be exposed to orthodox Wesleyan teaching than under the current state of affairs.

There should be a better Christian witness on marriage than a church going through a divorce.

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