On February 26, 2019, a special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri, adopted a plan that forbids practicing lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons to serve as pastors in that denomination. The proposals endorsed by the denomination at this session also forbid the performance of same-sex marriages by United Methodist clergy.
The prevailing legislation, called the Traditional Plan, passed by the very narrow margin of 438 to 384 (53% to 47%) (1). This plan affirms the Biblical definition of marriage as between one man and one woman, and affirms the current position of the United Methodist Book of Discipline that homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian teaching.
Many Seventh-day Adventist observers noted with interest that those Methodists opposing the Traditional Plan largely favored an approach currently promoted by many Adventist supporters of women’s ordination—the policy of permitting individual regions to decide for themselves the issues of LGBT pastors and the performance of same-sex marriages. The Methodist version of this proposal, called the One Church Plan, was recommended by the church’s bishops in advance of the St. Louis meeting (2). But in the end, this plan was rejected by the St. Louis delegates (3). Another proposal, the so-called Simple Plan, would have simply removed from the church’s Book of Discipline the language condemning homosexual practice. This plan too was voted down in St. Louis. (4).
Parallels With—and Lessons for—the Continuing Crisis in Seventh-day Adventism
Adventists who have followed the debate in the United Methodist Church over LGBT issues cannot but notice the parallels with, and lessons for, the continuing crisis over Biblical authority, women’s ordination, and related issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What follows are a number of parallels and lessons which merit consideration as contemporary Adventism deals with its present theological, ecclesiastical, and moral challenges:
1. Biblical authority is the central issue. As in the current agitation by some in Adventism for women’s ordination and acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle, the Methodist debate in St. Louis illustrated how personal experience and concession to popular culture have been permitted to obscure the clarity of Holy Scripture on issues of gender roles, sexuality, and other questions. Tragically, much of United Methodism has long since caved to the premises of higher criticism and liberal theology, and thus finds it especially difficult at the present moment to reject the LGBT agenda, even though for now they have formally done so.
The wife of one retired United Methodist minister made plain the influence of liberal theological premises in her denomination’s current debate, when she asked in the wake of the St. Louis vote: “Who are we to be legislating the love of God, and putting barriers around people being in ministry?” (5).
As theological liberalism and higher criticism assume religious beliefs to be the product of human circumstances rather than of supernatural intervention in those circumstances, it makes sense for one holding such a worldview to speak as if opposition to homosexual practice is a purely human thing, rather than the result of God’s objective revelation in Holy Scripture (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; Rom. 1:26-27; I Cor. 6:9-10; I Tim. 1:10). For those whose religious thinking is informed by this very human, finite view of religion in general and Scripture in particular, the Bible is little more than a religious document produced by fallible mortals, and is seen as open to widely varying interpretations. Few if any with such an outlook are likely to tremble at the Word of the Lord (Ezra 10:3; Isa. 66:2).
2. Acceptance of women’s ordination is a logical precursor to acceptance of the LGBT lifestyle. In 1956 the United Methodist Church voted to ordain women to ministerial roles identical to those of men. The fruit of this decision was painfully obvious in St. Louis. The ordination of women to pastoral roles identical to those held by men violates the order of Biblical gender authority, which extends back to Creation and even to the Godhead Itself (I Cor. 11:3; I Tim. 2:12-13). Those denominations that have embraced this practice have all too often opened the door to the acceptance of homosexual practice as well. Several years ago, Time magazine reported:
For many evangelicals, the marriage debate isn’t really about marriage or families or sex—it is about the Bible itself. And that makes many evangelicals all the more uncompromising. The roots of the conflict are deeply theological. . . .
And there is another, just as fundamental, obstacle. So far no Christian tradition has been able to embrace the LGBT community without first changing its views about women. The same reasoning that concludes that homosexuality is sin is also behind the traditional evangelical view that husbands are the spiritual leaders of marriages and men are the leaders in churches. . . .
“It is not an accident that the women’s-liberation movement preceded the gay-liberation movement,” [Episcopal Bishop Eugene] Robinson says. “Discriminatory attitudes and treatment of LGBT people is rooted in patriarchy, and in order to embrace and affirm gays, evangelicals will have to address their own patriarchy and sexism, not just their condemnation of LGBT people” (6).
Reporting on the United Methodist decision in St. Louis, The Atlantic also noted the connection between the women’s ordination and sexuality debates:
Conservative delegates argued that their position is a matter of biblical fidelity. “Traditional believers regard scripture as being the ultimate authority,” [Keith] Boyette said. “When it comes to something like our teachings on human sexuality and what the Bible spells out as the boundaries there, those are essentials.” Other delegates, however, argued that conservatives focus on this issue to the exclusion of others, such as divorce, and that conservative Methodists are perfectly willing to interpret the Bible’s teachings on other issues, such as women in ministry (7).
A noteworthy indicator of the impact of women’s ordination on the sexuality controversy in United Methodism was the present writer’s observation that among the female pastors who spoke during the debate in St. Louis, not one (unless I missed something) spoke in favor of the Biblical position on sexuality. From my own perusal of the online proceedings, every woman pastor and bishop who spoke to the question argued for an ambiguous, Scripture-defying notion of “love” and “acceptance” as the answer to the dispute.
Some in Adventism may cite the recent United Methodist decision as proof that denominations that ordain women can simultaneously oppose the LGBT agenda. But the impact of the women pastors in St. Louis on the Methodist conversation, together with the widespread influence of higher criticism and other liberal theological premises on the church’s earlier decision to ordain women to positions identical to those held by men, has made doubly hard the task of those Methodists seeking to be true to the Bible in the present dispute over LGBT issues. Had the Methodists held the line against women’s ordination decades ago, it is extremely likely that acceptance of LGBT clergy and same-sex marriage wouldn’t have gotten to first base so far as high-level consideration of such practices in their religious community is concerned.
3. The Methodist decision for Biblical faithfulness could open up discussion of other issues. Reference in the above report from The Atlantic to issues of divorce and women’s ordination could perhaps open the door for United Methodists to recognize other areas where accepted practices within their denomination violate God’s Word. What is interesting is that the present discussion in Methodist circles is not about practicing LGBT persons holding church membership, but rather, holding office as clergy and having their weddings officially sanctioned by the denomination.
One conservative Methodist pastor who voted with the majority in St. Louis, who gave an interview following the vote, admitted that his Pennsylvania congregation included gay people, stating at one point: “They are loved and they love others. We welcome them, they welcome us and we love them. They are part of our family. Whether or not we will include them isn’t an issue” (8).
Please understand that this pastor made no distinction in his quoted comments between practicing and non-practicing LGBT persons, nor between such persons merely visiting his congregation or becoming members of the same. It seems quite clear that whether practicing LGBT persons can become or remain members of the United Methodist Church is not an issue in that denomination’s current controversy.
Another delegate, a young person speaking for the Biblical position on sexuality, nevertheless expressed her desire to “work alongside” LGBT people in ministry (9). Again, no distinction was made between practicing and non-practicing LGBT persons, or exactly what “working alongside” LGBT people in ministry means in practical terms. Why, one may ask, can church members openly pursue a lifestyle that the church plainly denounces as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” while those in formal ministry are forbidden to do this?
The Seventh-day Adventist Church, by contrast, explicitly forbids practicing homosexuals to hold church membership (10), a policy which stands in full harmony with the Biblical prohibition against persons living in open sexual sin being part of church fellowship (I Cor. 5:9-13). While this prohibition—sadly—isn’t always enforced, none can deny that its very presence in the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual exerts a restraining influence on what otherwise might be a wider acceptance of this practice at the grassroots of the church. While the Methodist Book of Discipline openly declares homosexual behavior to be incompatible with Christian teaching, the comments of the pastor quoted above make one wonder if this admonition from the Book of Discipline is anywhere being applied to individual members in that denomination as well as to its clergy. One notes with sadness the statement in 1982 by Methodist Pastor Dean Kelley that “for decades there hasn’t been anything you could do that would get you drummed out of the Methodist Church” (11). If in fact this is still true, it goes far in explaining the depth and seriousness of the present crisis in that particular faith community.
But a resurgence of Biblical faithfulness among United Methodists could open many minds to other issues where cultural and other factors have obscured and countered the teachings of Scripture. The safeguarding of church membership, as well as the divorce issue, are but two of these. One thinks of the experience of Dr. C. Raymond Holmes, who in 1970 resigned his pulpit in the Evangelical Lutheran Church to become a Seventh-day Adventist (12). As one who had fought against theological liberalism in the Evangelical Lutheran Church (13), he found himself faced with a double crisis when his wife became interested in Adventism (14). In the end, Holmes was compelled to realize that if the principle of taking the Bible as it reads was applied to Scripture as a whole, Seventh-day Adventism was in fact the true embodiment of the Biblical consensus (15).
Perhaps the same Biblical enlightenment will attend a renewed study of Scripture on the part of those in the United Methodist Church who come to recognize the extent to which their communion and many others in mainline Christendom have departed from the Biblical message.
4. Third World growth. It was clear at the session in St. Louis that the recent growth of United Methodism in Third World countries (Africa in particular) gave a winning margin to the Biblical stance on sexuality. The same, of course, has been true in the Seventh-day Adventist Church regarding the ordination question. At the three General Conference sessions in Adventism that have debated women’s ordination, the margin of victory for the Biblical position on gender roles in ministry has come from the church’s Third World members.
The big difference, to be sure, is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church has grown far more dramatically in non-Western countries than has United Methodism. The comparatively small rate of Methodist growth in the Third World in contrast with Adventism is very likely due to the problems of theological liberalism in the Methodist community to which we have earlier made reference—problems far greater and more pervasive in that community than in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
As reports in the media have documented for quite some time, theologically liberal denominations have been in free-fall decline for most of the past half-century (16). One liberal Methodist bishop, deeply regretting the St. Louis vote, made the following, rather ironic observation regarding Methodist membership decline in recent decades:
In the four decades I’ve been an ordained leader in the UMC, we have lost 30 percent of our membership. Our response? Spend millions of dollars and hours of work to decide who else we can exclude. From what I know of Jesus, I predict he will not deal graciously with the infidelity of this church born in John Wesley’s exuberant, extroverted, “Salvation for all!” (17).
One can only imagine John Wesley’s unfettered outrage at the notion of accepting practicing homosexuals into the movement he founded—not to mention that of our Savior, who declared to the woman caught in adultery, not simply “Neither do I condemn thee,” but also, “Go, and sin no more” (John 8:11). What the bishop cited above seems quite oblivious to recognizing is how the recent history of Western Christianity makes plain that when you hold without compromise high standards of faith and conduct, your numbers will increase, not decrease. It is the compromising accommodating denominations—a group in which the United Methodists have sadly been prominent—that have steadily lost members while acceding to the thought and practices of a morally feckless, self-indulgent culture.
Mission work isn’t likely to garner significant evangelistic results when doubt and uncertainty are permitted to weaken foundational elements of one’s religious faith. This explains why the margin of victory in St. Louis for the Biblical posture on sexuality (53% to 47%) was so much narrower than the recent vote at the 2015 Adventist General Conference session rejecting women’s ordination—a vote which, as many will recall, was 58% to 41% (18). Seventh-day Adventism certainly faces great and grave challenges just now, but the thrust of our far-flung mission endeavors in Third World countries since the start of our movement has been driven primarily by a Bible-based, decidedly conservative theological worldview. Hence the much stronger Biblical clarity in the decisions of our Third World members in contrast to those from the affluent, morally ambiguous cultures of the West.
5. Contrast in church structure. Following the 1995 Adventist General Conference session, a delegate of decidedly “progressive” leanings wrote: “Anyone who sat through all of the business sessions at Utrecht has a better understanding of just why no other Protestant church attempts to have a world church structure” (19). But anyone watching the Methodist meeting in St. Louis—not to mention anyone witnessing the present challenge to the unity of global Adventism over the ordination question—understands exactly why the centralized structure of worldwide Adventism differs even from that of the Methodists, whose governing system is quite similar.
The debate in St. Louis over varying “exit” strategies for churches and other structural entities within Methodism who might wish to leave the denomination—whether on the left or the right of the church’s present divide, depending on the outcome of the current struggle—helped to underscore the consummate wisdom behind the global, cohesive structure of the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist body. Those entities in contemporary Adventism which are presently acting contrary to the church’s ordination policy are doing so under the assumption that church leaders at higher levels will not pursue those disciplinary measures spelled out in the General Conference Working Policy as appropriate in cases of rebellion and/or apostasy (20). (It should be noted that the aforesaid Working Policy explicitly forbids gender-neutral ordinations to the gospel ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (21).) The GC Working Policy is also clear that all structural components of the worldwide Adventist body are obligated to adhere to the doctrines and policies voted by the world church at the General Conference level (22).
What is more, should any of these components be disbanded or re-organized by higher levels without the church organization—as the GC Working Policy allows in cases of rebellion and/or apostasy (23)—the material assets of these component parts of the church organization are to be transferred to a legal entity authorized by the next level of church organization (24).
In other words, no structural entity within global Adventism whose leaders or constituents might wish to leave the world body, can take that entity’s material assets with them. As an attorney for the church organization stated but recently when asked about this question at a local Conference gathering: anyone who leaves the church structure goes empty-handed so far as the physical property of the church is concerned.
The interconnected nature of the global Adventist structure is thus far more binding and cohesive than that of the United Methodists. Many within the latter community might well, before long, wish their church had embraced the organizational pattern followed by their Adventist theological cousins.
6. Voice of the youth. One noted with interest the contrast between the youthful voices of the Methodists in St. Louis and the youthful voices of Adventism at the recent General Conference session in San Antonio. Though youthful delegates in St. Louis were in fact heard supporting the Biblical position on sexuality, many more spoke and stood at the microphones for the opposing position, presuming (rightly or otherwise) to speak for their generation and to warn their church not to drive LGBT members and their youthful sympathizers from the denomination.
At the Adventist General Conference session in San Antonio, by contrast, a number of youthful delegates were present, but only one spoke at the microphone—the president of Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC). And her voice was heard powerfully in support of the Biblical position on spiritual gender roles, and in opposition to women’s ordination. Whatever young delegates there were in San Antonio who favored women’s ordination, their voices were silent on the session floor.
7. Fabricated unity won’t work. One thoughtful delegate in St. Louis observed, when addressing the conference: “A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where would they live? . . . You can tie a lion and a crocodile together, and you’ll have unity, but not much fellowship” (25).
The Bible itself asks, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3). The counsel of Ellen White offers similar admonitions, such as the following:
Christ calls for unity. But He does not call for us to unify on wrong practices. The God of heaven draws a sharp contrast between pure, elevating, ennobling truth and false, misleading doctrines. He calls sin and impenitence by the right name. He does not gloss over wrongdoing with a coat of untempered mortar. I urge our brethren to unify upon a true, scriptural basis (26).
We have a testing message to give, and I am instructed to say to our people, “Unify, unify.” But we are not to unify with those who are departing from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils. With our hearts sweet and kind and true, we are to go forth to proclaim the message, giving no heed to those who lead away from the truth (27).
Christ never purchased peace and friendship by compromise with evil. Though His heart overflowed with love toward the human race, He could not be indulgent to their sins. Because He loved men and women, He was a stern reprover of their vices. His life of suffering, the humiliation to which He was subjected by a perverse nation, show His followers that there must be no sacrifice of principle (28).
Jesus prayed that His followers might be one; but we are not to sacrifice the truth in order to secure this union; for we are to be sanctified through the truth. Here is the foundation of all true peace. Human wisdom would change all this, pronouncing this basis too narrow. Men would try to effect unity through concession to popular opinion, through compromise with the world, a sacrifice of vital godliness. But truth is God’s basis for the unity of His people (29).
At times, with burning earnestness and words of terrible severity, Christ denounced the abominations He saw in the church and in the world. He would not allow the people to be deceived by false claims to righteousness and sanctity.
We are to unify, but not on a platform of error (30).
We cannot purchase peace and unity by sacrificing the truth. The conflict may be long and painful, but at any cost we must hold fast to the Word of God (31).
Speaking of the early Christians who refused to compromise with the great apostasy, she writes:
To secure peace and unity they were ready to make any concession consistent with fidelity to God; but they felt that even peace would be too dearly purchased at the sacrifice of principle. If unity could be secured only by the compromise of truth and righteousness, then let there be difference, and even war (32).
8. Contrast in decorum. The difference between the behavior of spectators at the St. Louis Methodist General Conference and those at the San Antonio Adventist General Conference was striking. Audience participation in the viewing stands in St. Louis was loud and boisterous when speakers spoke in favor of the LGBT position. (If similar responses accompanied the speeches of conservative delegates, my computer’s live-streaming didn’t pick it up.)
I also noticed delegates at the Methodist General Conference wearing buttons indicating where they stood in the controversy, just as people do at secular political rallies and party conventions.
By contrast, in San Antonio—though the stands were full on the day the ordination question was decided—no comparable demonstrations or outbursts from either side accompanied speeches on the floor of the session or the outcome of the vote when it was announced. I saw no delegates in San Antonio wearing pins or carrying signs indicating their stance. Elder Mike Ryan, who chaired the discussion, gave strong admonitions as to the disallowance of such behavior, counsel which was strictly heeded by those on the floor and in the viewing galleries. (I was present in San Antonio at the Alamo Dome for each day’s deliberations; thus I know whereof I speak.) One felt sad for the Methodist officials who chaired the St. Louis deliberations, as their frequent appeals for calm and a desisting from applause and similar demonstrative reactions seemed to be largely ignored.
Those in contemporary Adventism who adhere to Biblical faithfulness regarding the issues of human sexuality must certainly rejoice at the outcome of the recent Methodist General Conference session in St. Louis. But due to earlier concessions by so many in the United Methodist Church regarding higher criticism, theological liberalism in general, and women’s ordination in particular, the struggle to hold the line on the sexuality issues will be vastly harder in that community than it might otherwise be.
The present conflict over a cluster of important issues just now in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is indeed severe, but all denominational pride aside, we are way better off than the Methodists. This is primarily because of our heritage of resisting culture and tradition as the basis for global decisions relative to faith and practice. The most recent Adventist General Conference vote relative to women’s ordination was, as noted earlier, 58% to 41%. But on such issues as homosexuality and the literal days of creation week, the majority favoring the Biblical position was staggering, with no quarter given to the stray and isolated voices seeking a more moderate stance.
The most powerful lesson for Adventists from the continuing crisis in Methodism is that the line on the supremacy of Biblical authority in all matters of faith and conduct must be held without compromise. Higher criticism and its philosophical premises are wholly intolerable as an approach to understanding the Bible. Nor can any concession to popular culture or personal experience be tolerated when such violate the Biblical consensus. By firmly holding our position in favor of Biblical gender role distinctions relative to spiritual leadership, Seventh-day Adventism can avert and more easily defeat the related aberrations of LGBT acceptance and theistic evolution, together with other challenges to the Biblical integrity of our faith.
But because they caved long ago on the higher critical and gender issues, the United Methodists are in a far worse position. We pray that as the controversy in that communion continues, those seeking to be faithful to Scripture will see the larger picture so far as mainstream Christian departures from Biblical faith and practice are concerned, and that multitudes of those with whom we share a common history will in time answer the summons of the fourth angel in Revelation 18, verse 4.
1. Dakin Andone, “Fractured after vote against LGBT clergy, weddings, United Methodists face possible split,” CNN, March 2, 2019 https://www.wsmv.com/news/us_world_news/fractured-after-vote-against-lgbt-clergy-weddings-united-methodists-face/article_e74c3747-4551-5b33-9716-6eee503d350a.html
2. William H. Willimon, “The Methodist mess in St. Louis,” The Christian Century,” Feb. 27, 2019 https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/methodist-mess-st-louis?fbclid=IwAR1-jAN_TTqkA1gSnEpNgnAIzAD03wM5OdabapzYEhEsJ10O9-6Ekc6Arhg
6. Elizabeth Dias, “A Change of Heart: Inside the evangelical war over gay marriage” Time, Jan. 26, 2015, pp. 47-48 (italics supplied).
7. Emma Green, “Conservative Christians Just Retook the United Methodist Church,” The Atlantic, Feb. 26, 2019 https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/02/united-methodists-fracture-lgbt-plan-rejected/583693/
8. Andone, “Fractured after vote against LGBT clergy, weddings, United Methodists face possible split,” CNN, March 2, 2019 https://www.wsmv.com/news/us_world_news/fractured-after-vote-against-lgbt-clergy-weddings-united-methodists-face/article_e74c3747-4551-5b33-9716-6eee503d350a.html
9. “Methodist 2019 GC Session Battle Royale” (video vignettes), quoted in “In a Historical Decision, United Methodists Confirm Biblical Sexuality” http://www.fulcrum7.com/news/2019/2/27/in-a-historical-decision-united-methodists-confirm-biblical-sexuality
10. Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual, 2015 edition, p. 62.
11. Dean Kelley, “How Adventism Can Stop Growing,” Ministry, February 1983, p. 7.
12. C. Raymond Holmes, Stranger in My Home (Nashville, TN: Southern Publishing Assn, 1974), pp. 9-10.
13. ----The Tip of An Iceberg: Biblical Authority, Biblical Interpretation, and the Ordination of Women in Ministry (Wakefield, MI: POINTER Publications, 1994), pp. 20-23.
14. Ibid, pp. 23-24.
16. Kevin Paulson, “Why Conservative Denominations Are Still Growing,” ADvindicate, Feb. 2, 2017 http://advindicate.com/articles/2017/2/2/why-conservative-denominations-are-still-growing
17. Willimon, “The Methodist mess in St. Louis,” The Christian Century,” Feb. 27, 2019 https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/guest-post/methodist-mess-st-louis?fbclid=IwAR1-jAN_TTqkA1gSnEpNgnAIzAD03wM5OdabapzYEhEsJ10O9-6Ekc6Arhg
18. Andrew McChesney and Marcos Paseggi, “Delegates Vote ‘No’ on Issue of Women’s Ordination,” Adventist Review, July 8, 2015 https://www.adventistreview.org/church-news/story2988-%E2%80%8Bgc-delegates-vote-%E2%80%98no%E2%80%99-on-issue-of-women%E2%80%99s-ordination
19. Susan Sickler, “Keep the Hugs,” Adventist Today, July-August 1995, p. 14.
20. General Conference Working Policy, 2017-2018 edition, pp. 110-113.
21. Ibid, p. 131.
22. Ibid, pp. 158,173,187,214-215,229.
23. Ibid, pp. 110-113.
24. Ibid, pp. 159,187,213,215.
25. “Methodist 2019 GC Session Battle Royale” (video vignettes), quoted in “In a Historical Decision, United Methodists Confirm Biblical Sexuality” http://www.fulcrum7.com/news/2019/2/27/in-a-historical-decision-united-methodists-confirm-biblical-sexuality
26. Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, vol. 1, p. 175.
27. Ibid, vol. 3, p. 412.
28. ----From the Heart, p. 332.
29. ----Our High Calling, p. 329.
30. ----Manuscript Releases, vol. 15, p. 259.
31. ----Historical Sketches, p. 197.
32. ----The Great Controversy, p. 45.
Pastor Kevin Paulson holds a Bachelor’s degree in theology from Pacific Union College, a Master of Arts in systematic theology from Loma Linda University, and a Master of Divinity from the SDA Theological Seminary at Andrews University. He served the Greater New York Conference of Seventh-day Adventists for ten years as a Bible instructor, evangelist, and local pastor. He writes regularly for Liberty magazine and does script writing for various evangelistic ministries within the denomination. He continues to hold evangelistic and revival meetings throughout the North American Division and beyond, and is a sought-after seminar speaker relative to current issues in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He presently resides in Berrien Springs, Michigan.