Monday, September 12, 2022

A Centrist Replies to Rob Renfroe

 Rob Renfroe recently posed "A few hard questions" to centrists that plan to stay in the United Methodist Church. Since I am one of those, I thought I would answer his questions.

"Do centrists actually believe that truth is 'contextual'?"

Renfroe states, "Missiologists stress the importance of using words and images that present the gospel in a way that is understandable in a given culture/context. But they never argue we should change the message of the Bible to be acceptable to a particular culture. But that’s what centrists are championing – the church may proclaim two contradictory truths at the same time – one affirming same-sex behavior, the other condemning it."

This is the crux of the issue. What is the message of the Bible, or more specifically for Christians, what is the message of Jesus the Christ? I have a picture of a person in front of a former Methodist Church protesting desegregation because the Bible does not affirm it. I trust all readers disagree with that statement. I trust virtually all readers agree that the message of the Bible is not that women should not be pastors. Globally, more than 2/3 of Christians today disagree with us (based on denominational membership). Centrists like me believe that for a person to feel compelled to leave a denomination, the issue at hand must truly rise to the level of a central tenet of the faith. Even many traditionalists would agree that banning loving same-sex relationships do not strike at the core of the Gospel. 

Renfroe then notes that we are not to conform to the world, using as an example the apostles preaching the same sexual ethic to the Jews (who could accept it easily) and to the Romans (who could not). Yet we actually have Biblical examples of the apostles "conforming." In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul clearly teaches that women are to be silent in worship. Elsewhere, like in Romans 16, he lists women as leaders of the Church. Likewise, in the famous Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:19, James concludes that because God's grace is available to all, "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." Specifically in reference to first century sexual practice, there is an open debate about what the apostles were telling the Romans to refrain from. It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find early examples of the equivalent of today's same-sex marriages. The practices we are certain they referred to, ritual prostitution and pederasty, for example, progressives, centrists, and traditionalists would all reject.

Is truth contextual? It is true that the Gospel is true beyond all contexts. It is also true that the way we live out and transmit the Gospel does sometimes change based on the context. 

"How can centrists state they are staying within the UM Church because UM theology will be uniquely positioned to reach our current culture after the traditionalists leave?"

We don't. I don't recall anybody stating this as their motive for staying in the UMC.

Renfroe quotes statistics that we have all heard about the decline of mainline denominations. I won't deny any of the stats. Christianity is in numerical decline in virtually all denominations throughout the country. Anybody who believes that there is a simple solution to this, whether progressive or traditionalist, is in denial.

"How can centrists promise the post-separation UM Church will not become predominantly progressive in its teachings?"

I'll answer this question with a question for Rob. How can you promise those leaving the UMC will not become increasingly fundamentalist in their teachings? 

The first pastor in the conference I serve who I know left because of our position on LGBT+ inclusion had, at the moment of his departure, a guest speaker at his church on the evils of evolution. The Northwest Texas Conference will likely be the conference with the largest percentage of churches leaving the denomination. A former lay leader of that conference told me 90% of their churches will not take a woman as a pastor. Backing that up, in 2020 only 15% of ordained elders serving local churches in that conference were women. In Renfroe's own Texas Annual Conference, with a bishop who recently said there is no violation of the Book of Discipline in the conference, the recently departed Faithbridge taught (and continues to teach) that children can be dedicated instead of baptized, baptizes in private homes instead of in public worship, and implies that adults can be rebaptized - all in violation of our basic baptismal doctrine. 

The centrists I know wish our denomination was not splitting because we believe we are at our best when we hold together the tension of different beliefs. Just like the Church has affirmed in canonizing four Gospels that it is good for the story of Jesus to be told in different ways; it is good for us to have different emphases in our telling the story still today.

I hope you will also note Renfroe's inflammatory use of the word "woke." I don't know anybody who would be considered "woke" that actually uses that term. It is a politically pejorative word used to demean a variety of positions. Once something is called "woke" it can be deemed wrong and irrelevant with one massively broad brush. Since its inception, Good News has raised money and popularity through fear. This is a textbook example that is consistent with their stated interest for at least 18 years to damage the denomination if there is a traditionalist exodus. 

As to predicting the future, Renfroe and I can be equally certain of the future of the groups that we are part of. 

Would centrists rather be in a denomination that requires its pastors and bishops to be orthodox but would not marry gay persons? Or would they rather be in a denomination that marries and ordains gay persons but allows its bishops and pastors to deny critical Christian beliefs?

Another trademark of Good News is to use extreme examples from the fringe without context. It's a great rhetorical strategy and a horrible logical approach. That's what Renfroe does in the examples he gives defending this point. I do agree with Renfroe that there are theological questions we will need to resolve in the future UMC - just as there has been for every other denomination in the history of Christianity and just as there will be in the new Global Methodist Church as evidenced by the examples I've shared above. But the first mistake Renfroe makes is assuming this must be an either/or issue. The starting point for most centrists was that our denomination need not divide. I reject the false dichotomy that Renfroe presents, and I will not be compelled to leave our denomination simply because others have chosen to leave. 

You may not agree with or even understand the answers I've given. My hope is that you can at least understand that the perspective I and many others come from has a rationale, both logical and scriptural, behind it. 


  1. David, I always find your comments and responses to the WCA/GMC crowd to be informative and helpful. And this response to Rob Renfroe are spot on. Thanks!

  2. David, thanks for your response to Renfroe. This is not the first time I’ve seen him throw “woke”, a political term, into a theological discussion.