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Abortion and Methodist split

Delegates meet at the United Methodist Church's 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
Delegates meet at the United Methodist Church's 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. | (Photo: Facebook/United Methodist General Conference)

Some think United Methodism’s split is over LGBTQIA+. But official United Methodism’s angry reaction to the Supreme Court’s overturning Roe v. Wade evinces it is much, much more.

The United Methodist Council of BishopsUnited Methodist General Board of Church and Society, the United Methodist women’s group, and General Commission on Women in Society, and General Board of Global Ministries all denounced the court ruling, which discerned there is no constitutional right to abortion.

Their statements ignored that the 2016 General Conference revoked United Methodism’s official support for Roe v. Wade dating to 1976 and that United Methodism has been moving in a more pro-life direction since first backing abortion rights in 1970. They also ignored that the court’s decision did not address the ethics of abortion but only found that the Constitution, which does not mention abortion, doesn’t prevent states from restricting abortion.  

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Far more importantly, these United Methodist statements were theologically and ethically vacuous, ignoring 2,000 years of rich ecumenical Christian teaching about the sacredness of all human life. They spoke instead in contemporary secular political language of equal access, autonomy, and therapeutic contextualization. The value and purpose of human life from a Christian understanding was unaddressed. Christianity, which is always biased in favor of the defenseless and the voiceless, for 2,000 years has cherished the unborn and argued for their protection. The divine Savior of the world entered into his earthly existence as a human embryo and then a fetus. John the Baptist, in the womb of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, leapt for joy when the Virgin announced she had conceived. The unborn are important actors in God’s view of human affairs.

Christianity has never, when faithful to its teachings, esteemed persons, born or unborn, based on their worldly standing, their intelligence, their capacity to care for themselves, or their ability to speak. Instead, all persons are assumed to image God and receive His love. We respect all persons, no matter their state of development, because they are of God. United Methodist statements did not acknowledge any of this received wisdom of love and care from the Church universal.

Here is the chief difference between the contending factions in United Methodism. Postmodernists who govern U.S. United Methodism are tacitly divorcing from the church universal. They believe that the 95% of the contemporary global Church, with 99% of the historic Church, that affirms traditional teachings about marriage, human life and God’s gift of male and female, among other treasures of the Church’s received teaching dating to Christ, and foreshadowed by the Hebrew patriarchs and prophets, is simply wrong. Not just wrong, but oppressive and retrograde. Western progressive Protestantism, in sync with Western secularism, is uniquely the vanguard of truth, not just in application of the faith but on core doctrine and ethical teaching.

This postmodern view of the church does not conceive a timeless and boundaryless Body of Christ but rather a discordant collection of willful and self-actualized individuals, each of whom decides what is best. It’s not a very appealing vision. But this different version of the Church is what is splitting United Methodism, not sexuality per se.

It’s unfortunate that United Methodism’s split is precipitated by LGBTQIA+ instead of the wider underlying gulf in defining the Church and its cosmic identity. Some traditionalists declare the split is about scriptural authority. Postmodernist Methodists insist they heed the Scriptures but through a contemporary, liberationist lens. This interpretation stresses justice and empowerment. Rightly or wrongly, this interpretation separates Western progressive Protestants from the rest of Christianity. Post-split, progressive United Methodism, like other U.S.-based declining liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, will reject the church universal’s historic and global ecumenical consensus on the sacredness of all human life and God’s core purposes for the human person. Traditional Methodists will join global Protestants, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostals, Evangelicals, and other Christians, today and in past centuries, who heed the life-affirming traditions of our common faith.

Traditional Methodism affirms that unborn persons merit protection and love, along with all vulnerable image bearers of God. And traditional Methodism will need to craft a new Wesleyan social witness that affirms ecumenical Christian ethics and abundant life with dignity for all people. Most importantly, traditional Methodism will see itself as part of the church universal, which is the Bride of Christ and, by His grace, and in His eyes, without blemish.

Official United Methodism’s unserious reaction to the overthrow of Roe v. Wade will help Methodists find clarity for the days of choosing ahead.

Originally published at Juicy Ecumenism. 

Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence.

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