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Whatever happened to John Wesley’s Methodism?

The theological battle is now over what it means to be human

A rainbow flag flies along with the U.S. flag in front of the Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan. Associated Press/Photo by Charlie Riedel, file

Whatever happened to John Wesley’s Methodism?

The recent departure of large numbers of congregations from the United Methodist Church over LGBTQ matters is a significant development. For an outsider’s perspective, it would seem to indicate impatience with the process for handling disagreements over the politics of sexuality and gender within the denomination. The once-touted planned amicable split is clearly happening in a less amicable (and more chaotic) fashion than originally intended.

The most divisive cultural issues of our day—those clustered around the questions raised by the Rainbow Alliance—are taking a deep toll within the Christian world.

That Christianity is being torn apart by a moral issue is interesting. For many years, mainline denominations such as the United Methodists and the Presbyterian Church, USA (PCUSA), were very relaxed with regard to normative doctrine. They were able to accommodate profound disagreements over many issues, from the authority of scripture to matters such as the historicity and significance of the Incarnation and the resurrection. This was the case in the Church of Scotland for many decades. Only with the arrival of the legitimation of a gay man in the ministry did the real open warfare within the denomination start and significant numbers of evangelicals depart.

On the face of it, this leaves such dissenters very vulnerable to accusations of bigotry. If central tenets of the faith can be denied or downplayed by ministers and yet conservatives still retain membership in the denomination, then the departure of the latter over gay ordination or the affirmation of transgenderism might seem to be rooted less in a concern for the Christian faith and more in a deep revulsion for these particular issues, or, to be more precise, for these particular kinds of people. That would be one possible interpretation and not a flattering one.

More charitably, though, an alternative reading might be plausible. The advent of sexuality and gender as key issues represents an unprecedented challenge to the church in the matter of anthropology. This is especially relevant now that LGBTQ rights is really becoming code for Q rights, of which the T is merely a subset. The L, the G and the B, with their commitment to giving at least some significance to biological differences between men and women, look increasingly passe and staid in today’s world of queer radicalism.

If you cannot agree on what it means to be a human being, you really cannot agree on anything.

As a society we are witnessing the attempt to queer all categories. It is not that the question “What is a woman?” is now difficult to answer. It is that the question “What is a human?” has apparently become intractable. And when that question comes to the church, it really is the end of line for anything even vaguely resembling Christianity. No wonder that churches like the UMC are splitting. If you cannot agree on what it means to be a human being, you really cannot agree on anything.

Of more concern to those of us who are not United Methodists is that this all bodes ill for society at large. The stresses and strains in the churches on these matters reflect the same stresses and strains in our wider culture. The current fragmentation of denominations is a harbinger of a much deeper and more damaging fragmentation: that of society itself.

Older doctrinal battles that led to church splits—typically over the supernatural nature of the faith—did not typically reflect serious fissures in the public life of the nation. One could believe in or deny the resurrection, but one could still be a good employee, a conscientious school board member, a positive contributor to the local community.

But the battle over what it means to be human is far more public and far more publicly consequential. How one answers that question—or, indeed, whether one thinks that question can be answered—is coming to have consequences in all areas of life, from parenthood to employment. The UMC split is not simply a spat between religious people. It is a microcosmic example of something that might very well split society itself in the very near future.

Carl R. Trueman

Carl R. Trueman taught on the faculties of the Universities of Nottingham and Aberdeen before moving to the United States in 2001 to teach at Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. In 2017-18 he was the William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University.  Since 2018, he has served as a professor at Grove City College. He is also a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a contributing editor at First Things. Trueman’s latest book is the bestselling The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. He is married with two adult children and is ordained in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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