This is the first in a short series of posts on myths people are sharing about what will happen in the United Methodist Church after the current wave of departures comes to an end. They are not lies or rumors. I think the large majority of people who share these really do believe what they are saying - they just aren't based in reality.
One of the most persistent myths is that as traditionalists leave the denomination, we will inevitably take a great step to the theological left. The logic seems fair - if a number of more conservative people leave the denomination, then what remains will be less conservative. But, as is often the case, the theoretical won't translate into the real world.
The first version of this argument was that after traditionalists leave progressives will be free to make changes to our official doctrine. This would happen through the action of General Conference. No doubt the U.S. component of delegates to General Conference will shift somewhat. We will, though, still be a big-tent denomination. There are many people who take very traditional positions on any number of theological questions and also believe in full inclusion for people who identifiy as LGBTQ+. It remains to be seen just how much of a shift there will actually be. Anecdotally, I have not heard any mention of attempting or even a desire to change any of our doctrine.
Second, even if there was a radical shift, it is nearly impossible to change our doctrinal standards. The vote threshold is simply too high - a 2/3 vote of General Conference and a 3/4 aggregate vote of Annual Conference members. Even if there was a desire, and I don't think there is, it simply couldn't be done.
This theory is so easily dismissed that virtually all traditionalist leadership has given up arguing it. They have shifted, instead, to a second approach
By Practical Standards, I mean the doctrine that is actually taught by our pastors in our churches. The argument is that our pastors will now preach and teach different doctrine regardless of what is in the Book of Discipline. Unlike the first argument, this one is at least theoretically possible. There are three reasons why it shouldn't be a concern.
First, it is inconsistent with what has allegedly led us to the place where we are today. Remember that while most progressives and centrists say that our divide is centered on the question of inclusion, traditionalists like to say the real issue is doctrine and scriptural authority. In other words, the issue is not what will happen in the future, but what has already happened. It is entirely fair for a person to say, "I can't stay in a denomination that believes X." If that is our denomination, then go with God's grace. If that is not our denomination, then stay. Don't leave a denomination that does not yet teach what you don't want it to teach.
Second, the exact same argument can be turned the other direction. I have shared before my concern for the future of women as pastors in the future Global Methodist Church. The closest denominational parallel we have for our split is the Episcopalian Church. The ACNA, their version of the GMC, gives each regional group (think our annual conferences) the option of whether to ordain women. However, I believe GMC leadership when they say they have every intent of maintaining the ordination of women. Thus, a better parallel may be the Church of the Nazarene. The Church of the Nazarene is in the Methodist tradition, ordains women, and does not have a guaranteed appointment of pastors - just like the GMC. Also, fewer than 10% of their pastors are women. While their official doctrine allows women to be ordained, the practice of the large majority of local churches is to not accept them as pastors. If traditionalist leaders want to assert that our doctrinal practice will not mirror our official practice, they must acknowledge the same for themselves.
Third, and most importantly, our pastors aren't changing. Remember the assertion is that our preaching and teaching will change regardless of what our official doctrinal standards say. Also, remember the accusation is that we are already not being held to the doctrinal standards. If these are both true, then what exactly will change once the separation moves further along? A concrete example: My preaching will not change if the Book of Discipline changes in 2024, just as it didn't change after General Conference in 2016 or 2019.
The Bottom Line
The statement that our doctrinal standards will change is a classic "slippery slope" argument. These are alluring arguments because they can't be proven false. The future is not yet written, so anyone is free to speculate about what may or may not transpire. But here is what we know for sure.
1. Changing our official doctrine is nearly impossible.
2. Our pastors and teaches are not going to change their teaching
Given these two facts, the idea that our doctrine will either officially or unofficially change seems far-fetched.