Changing Religious Direction (Part 1): Why We’re Moving On

When I was in fifth grade, my family began attending services at Community of Faith United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia. Before long I was baptized in that church. A few years later, I was confirmed there and was an active participant in the church’s youth group.

When we moved to Bedford, Virginia, my family and I transferred membership to Main Street United Methodist Church. Up until then, I would say I was—at best—a nominal Christian. I didn’t have a particularly solid faith until I participated in a Harvest of Hope summer camp, which is a program of the Society of Saint Andrew hunger ministry (my father’s employer). It was there—seeing Christianity in action and making a positive difference in the world—that I really understood what faith was all about and slowly began to really, truly believe.

At Harvest I also made several friends from the town of Altavista, which is about 30 minutes away from Bedford by winding country roads. A few short weeks later, at the invitation of my new friends, I began active participation in the youth group at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Altavista. In the years to come, I also participated in the UMC’s Lynchburg District Youth Worship Team.

I moved back to Northern Virginia in August 2000 to begin my college career at George Mason University. Back in my old stomping grounds, I returned to Community of Faith. I transferred my membership back in 2002 on the same day that Melissa—then my girlfriend—was baptized and also joined the church. I have been one of Community of Faith’s lay-delegates to the Virginia Annual Conference of the UMC five times (which also made me a member of the Administrative Council), served a three year term on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (essentially the church’s H.R. department), and played bass guitar in the 8:30 service’s praise band.

In 2005, Melissa and I were married at Community of Faith by Pastor Rob Vaughn, who—along with former Associate Pastor Rocky Shoemaker—has provided tireless and dedicated leadership to the church for the last decade. Over the past few years Melissa and I have participated in a young adult group at Community of Faith where we study and discuss issues of faith. On my own, I have studied the religious texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—primarily for my own enlightenment, but also to better understand and discuss contentious issues of religion in the world today.

I tell you all this because I haven’t really talked about my faith journey on this site in any detail. That’s partially because faith is a personal thing, but also because matters of faith are extremely difficult to discuss in a context that makes sense to those without it (which is, unfortunately, most people these days).

I also want to illustrate that I have been an active member of United Methodist Churches and the United Methodist denomination of Christianity for many years. I have participated in its polity, studied its teachings, and looked upon it with a sometimes-sympathetic and sometimes-critical eye. United Methodism is the denomination in-which I became a Christian, and the denomination in-which I have faithfully participated—as my membership vow stated—with my “prayers, presence, gifts, and service.”

In response to a gentle tugging we felt in our hearts over the last few years, following long, prayerful consideration, Melissa and I came to the conclusion last year that we were being called to find a new faith community. We have since formally left the United Methodist denomination and—by extension—Community of Faith United Methodist Church.

This decision was not one I took lightly, especially since I owe much to United Methodism and, specifically, to Lane Memorial and Community of Faith. For years though, I have been increasingly concerned that many of the teachings of the United Methodist Church as a denomination are not in accord with Christian scripture, nor Christian tradition, nor reason, nor experience. These are the four pillars of the ‘Wesleyan Quadrilateral’ upon which the denomination claims to base its theological practice, with scripture supposedly the ‘primary’ source, yet they only-rarely seem to factor into denominational decisions now. When they do, they are factored incorrectly and scripture is rarely treated as the primary source.

As I grow in my faith, particularly through continual study of the Hebrew and Christian scripture, I found United Methodism’s current practices and teachings to be less and less palatable. As a democratically operated church, the strong undercurrent of ‘anything goes’ moral relativism in society outside the church has already tarnished its social teachings, and will probably continue to do so. United Methodism is unlikely to regain its moral footing except—perhaps—through a damaging schism creating one new denomination dedicated to moral relativism and another dedicated to God (much like that happening in the U.S. Episcopal Church).

This schism, if it occurs at all, is unlikely to occur soon. The United Methodist Church is teetering on a fence between loyalty to its core Biblical foundation and the worldly opinions brought into it by a system of democratic polity. Many of the church’s doctrines have been carefully crafted to avoid offending either ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ members and, as a result, end up being confusing, meaningless, or duplicitous. This balancing act has helped the United Methodist Church avoid the aforementioned schism, but the denomination has indeed been slowly hemorrhaging many of its most Godly members to more Godly churches and many of its least to an un-churched secular society.

This all boils down to the fact that God is infinitely forgiving, but he is also infinitely demanding. Having ‘faith’ in your head is part of being a true Christian, but the other part is living the Christian life. Modern Methodism tends to focus almost exclusively on a ‘head’ faith, and when the church concedes that there is more to faith than ‘believing’ it seems to extend solely to external good works like feeding the hungry or, occasionally, lobbying for a change to a law.

This is all well-and-good, though I don’t think the church should be in the lobbying business, but Jesus also demanded that we as individuals avoid sin in our private lives and, when we fall short, repent and seek forgiveness. Church communities are supposed to do good works, but they are also supposed to foster a culture of personal holiness among their members too. This part of faith is the part that the UMC seems to have forgotten, despite it being of central importance to John Wesley (founder of the Methodist movement) and a core part of the history of Methodism. Today’s UMC is perennially afraid to offend anybody by calling sinful moral behavior into question.

What follows are just a few specific instances and issues where the United Methodist Church has failed to live up to its scriptural responsibilities. You will notice that these objections are with the denomination and its moral teachings as a whole, not with the individual churches in which I have participated. Choosing to leave the denomination was easy; leaving my church, pastors, and long-time faith community, however, was very hard.

  • Homosexuality:

    The hot-button issue of the times is the church’s muddled stance on homosexuality. While this issue isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things, it is a ‘bellwether’ that shows whether a particular denomination is grounded in Biblical teaching or in worldly values.

    I believe, based on study of scripture, that homosexual activity is clearly sinful (Leviticus 18:22, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). That doesn’t mean that being gay is a sin, but that acting on it is. It also doesn’t mean we should discriminate against gays in our civil politics, hiring practices, college admissions, etc., or that we should commit acts of violence against gays. These acts are just as unacceptable as homosexual activity is, if not more so, for people who call themselves Christian.

    Regardless, the current UMC stance manages to affirm homosexual activity’s sinfulness and simultaneously go to great lengths to say ‘not that there’s anything wrong with that.’ This stance was narrowly reaffirmed by the 2008 General Conference, the supreme decision-making body of the church, but a heartbreaking 45 percent of delegates voted to completely abandon Biblical and traditional understanding of Christian sexual morality to make the church more ‘inclusive’.

    • Homosexual persons no less than heterosexual persons are individuals of sacred worth. All persons need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider [sic] this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all, and we will seek to live together in Christian community. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons” (UMC Book of Discipline 2004).
  • Marriage:

    Melissa and I each take marriage very, very seriously—it is a permanent covenant between the two of us and God. Marriage is for life. It cannot be undone, and it is structured by God both for companionship and more-fundamentally for the creation of family and the raising of children (if God so chooses to bless the couple). It is the fundamental building block of civilized society.

    Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32).

    You can’t get much clearer than that with regard to the permanence and sanctity of marriage but, once again, the UMC tries to take both sides of the issue. Marriage is sacred and permanent but, well, you can get divorced and remarried anyway and that’s just fine too.

    • We affirm the sanctity of the marriage covenant that is expressed in love, mutual support, personal commitment, and shared fidelity between a man and a woman. We believe that God’s blessing rests upon such marriage, whether or not there are children of the union. . . . We support laws in civil society that define marriage as the union of one man and one woman” (UMC Book of Discipline 2004).
    • “ . . . However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. . . . Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all” (UMC Book of Discipline 2004).
  • Abortion:

    There are few sins more grievous than the murder of an unborn child, but in typical form the United Methodist Church tries to straddle the line for fear of offending people. This time, the church is indeed uncharacteristically decisive in frowning upon abortion, especially condemning ‘partial birth’ abortions and abortion as a means of gender selection.

    But even when making this rare stand on an issue of personal morality, the church fluffs it up with weak language. Abortion of a fetus is not sinful, nor immoral, nor heinous, but simply something the church is ‘reluctant to approve’ and ‘cannot affirm.’ Whether abortion is legal or illegal is irrelevant here; morally, it is a affront to God and unquestionably wrong. I cannot comprehend of any true Christian believing otherwise.

    • Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother, for whom devastating damage may result from an unacceptable pregnancy. In continuity with past Christian teaching, we recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures. We cannot affirm abortion as an acceptable means of birth control, and we unconditionally reject it as a means of gender selection” (UMC Book of Discipline 2004).
  • Bizarre Political Stances:

    The United Methodist Church is afflicted with a disease that causes it to spend an inordinate amount of time in its Annual and General Conferences concerning itself with political/governmental issues instead of concerning itself with making disciples of Jesus Christ and teaching the transcendent morality of our religion to our supposed adherents and out into the secular world.

    This has resulted in the church’s Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions each being peppered with meaningless opinions on political issues that should be left to the voters, not to the church. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:15-22, Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26). These issues are, invariably, ones where faithful, moral churchgoers could come to differing opinions about how to apply their faith to their politics. Here are just a few of many, many examples (with emphasis added in bold on the parts I find most egregious and politicized, and notes in brackets).

    • We support the right of public and private (including farm, government, institutional, and domestic) employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing. Further, we support the right of both parties to protection in so doing and their responsibility to bargain in good faith within the framework of the public interest. . . . We likewise reject the permanent replacement of a worker who engages in a lawful strike (UMC Book of Discipline 2004). [I get fired if I don’t show up for work, even if I don’t show up because I’m trying to get higher wages or better benefits. Why shouldn’t strikers have to live by the same rules as any other worker?]
    • Every person has the right to a job at a living wage. Where the private sector cannot or does not provide jobs for all who seek and need them, it is the responsibility of government to provide for the creation of such jobs (UMC Book of Discipline 2004). [Isn’t that socialism? Where did Jesus say it’s the government’s job to provide jobs and living wages? Didn’t he tell his followers to feed the hungry, not the government?]
    • In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole. Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self, and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right” (UMC Book of Discipline 2004). [I don’t even know what this means! It’s meaningless gibberish.]
    • We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy, to be employed only as a last resort in the prevention of such evils as genocide, brutal suppression of human rights, and unprovoked international aggression. . . . Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control” (UMC Book of Discipline 2004). [There’s an old saying that says if you want peace, prepare for war. A ‘general and complete disarmament’ will ultimately leave us powerless to keep the peace in the face of foreign invaders, tyrants, and oppressors.]
  • Repentance and Church Membership:

    The United Methodist Church accepts essentially anybody into full membership within the church, no matter what they say or how they act or whether they believe in the core precepts of the faith or not. Pastors are charged with ‘discerning readiness for membership’ but, as a matter of practice, rarely-if-ever deny membership to anybody willing to profess it.

    This practice dilutes the legitimacy of the church and fattens its rosters with nominal members who do not intend to even attempt to live a Christian life. These members are in no way held accountable for their ongoing indiscretions—‘after all,’ say the good Methodists, ‘who are we to judge?’

    The reality is that we are called to try to eliminate sin from our lives, repent (i.e., change our ways) when we fall short, and strive to create positive communities that are better and less-sinful than the world around them. We cannot expel all sinners from our religious communities, nor should we try. There is, however, a moral difference between past sinfulness, or unintentional sin, or fervent battles against one’s sinful habits as compared to ongoing, unrepentant, unchallenged sinfulness. It is the unrepentant sinner—he who knows he is sinning but makes no effort to change—who should not be granted full acceptance or membership in our churches.

    • For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).

As I mentioned, these are only a few of the more egregious problems with the social teachings of the United Methodist Church today, but there are plenty more where they came from. The church’s Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions each contain probably thousands of examples of endorsement of sin, wishy-washy non-statements, left-wing political lobbying, and other affronts to the teachings of Jesus Christ and of Holy Scripture. The more I read, the more I learned, and the more I studied, the less I felt at-home in a denomination that has so terribly lost its way.

I owe a lot to the faith communities I’ve participated in, particularly at Community of Faith UMC and Lane Memorial UMC. I owe more to individual United Methodist clergy and laity, including Rev. Reames, Rev. Vaughn, Rev. Shoemaker, Rev. Allan, Rev. Cailles, Mr. & Mrs. Jackson, Shawn Kiger, Donnie Smith, and countless others who have been a part of my faith journey and a positive influence on my life. I sincerely hope that none of these wonderful people feel that I am turning my back on them. That is certainly not my intent. I also owe a lot to my parents, since they laid the moral foundation that I live by today (and, faced with similar frustrations, left the United Methodist Church well before it had even crossed my mind).

My faith journey doesn’t end here. I’m striving to live a more and more Godly life, which is what all Christians should be doing, and I felt I’d gone as far as I could in a denomination that doesn’t seem to value Godliness and personal holiness anymore. United Methodism was an important part of my life, but it was clearly time to move on.

In Part 2 of this series I will be explaining the process Melissa and I used to determine where to go and discuss some communities that we decided against joining, and in Part 3 I will be discussing the choice we made and the detailed reasons why we made it.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.