The Episcopal Church, with two million members, drove off the cliff in 2003 by electing its first openly homosexual bishop. In 2005, the United Church of Christ (1.1 million members) officially endorsed same-sex “marriage,” though the UCC had already long been ordaining active homosexuals. This year, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (4.9 million members), by a surprisingly large margin, approved a new policy allowing homosexual clergy and countenancing sex outside of marriage for heterosexuals. Also this year, the three-million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) turned back another attempt to liberalize its orthodox teachings about marriage and sex. But liberals are persistent; they will try again.
Among the historic Mainline Protestant denominations, only the United Methodist Church seems poised for a decisive return to orthodoxy after nearly a century-long slide into liberalism. Why? Methodists, unlike Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists, are not strongly confessional or historically renowned for theological brilliance. They are the largest group of the Mainliners, and typically are among its most Middle American and middlebrow.
Maybe the ordinariness of Methodists was ultimately the church’s protection. Even while its seminaries went solidly liberal by the 1920’s, and the church bureaucracy became infamous for its once avant-garde (but now tiresome) theological and political experimentation, the subculture of much of Methodism remained blithely evangelical. Our hymnal, with its rich reservoir of Wesleyan hymns, deserves some thanks. Nonseminary-trained but credentialed local preachers also played a role.
Most dramatically, United Methodism’s international membership can be credited. Unlike the other Mainline denominations, which are almost entirely based in the United States, one third of United Methodism’s membership is now outside U.S. borders, primarily in Africa. When United Methodism’s next governing General Conference convenes in 2012, as much as 40 percent of the delegates will be from other countries. By some estimates, there are more worshipers in United Methodist churches in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on a typical Sunday than in the entire United States. United Methodism is also strong in Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Angola. The Africans are overwhelmingly conservative theologically and impatient with theological and sexual revisionists who have prevailed in other U.S.-based denominations.
Thanks to the Africans, who will likely represent a majority of United Methodism within 20 years or less, Methodists can anticipate a future more strongly moored to theological orthodoxy. But the African surge is relatively recent. More than 20 years ago, the church’s international component was not a strong factor in its policies and governance. Who kept the Wesleyan flame burning during the dark 1960’s and 70’s, when evangelicals were an often disregarded minority, at least by church elites?
The answer is mostly an evangelical caucus within United Methodism called Good News, based in Wilmore, Kentucky, and founded in 1967. For over 40 years it has fought for biblical Christianity within United Methodism, and within recent decades it has begun to see the blossoms of its spiritual fruit. As the most successful renewal movement among Mainline Protestantism, leaders from Good News have helped spawn other evangelical caucus groups and exponents of orthodoxy within the denomination: Bristol House, an evangelical publisher of books and Sunday-school curricula; the Foundation for Theological Education, a Ph.D. scholarship program for theologically orthodox students; The Confessing Movement, an advocacy group for theological accountability; Renew, an evangelical women’s group; Lifewatch, a pro-life caucus; Transforming Congregations, the unofficial ministry for homosexuals struggling for chastity; the Mission Society for United Methodists, the unofficial missions agency for evangelical United Methodists (which now dispatches more full-time missionaries than the official, liberal-dominated church missions agency); and my own organization, the Institute on Religion and Democracy, which was founded in 1981 to combat Methodist and other church groups supporting Marxism under the aegis of liberation theology.
Whence came Good News? Critics and friends often imagine it to be a creature of Southern conservative evangelicalism. But actually it traces back to Midwestern Methodism, whose evangelicals were often more combative and less institutional than Southern Methodists. Charles Keysor was a feisty pastor from Elgin, Illinois, who penned a column for a church magazine (Christian Advocate) in 1966 called “Methodism’s Silent Minority: A Voice for Orthodoxy,” which touted the church’s continuing but largely unacknowledged evangelical subculture. Keysor had been inspired by the magazine’s editor, James Wall, later editor of Christian Century, who suggested, “Why don’t you write an article for us describing the central beliefs and convictions of this part of our church?”
Keysor asserted that Methodism’s “silent minority” was unrepresented in the church’s “higher councils,” its concepts were “often abhorrent to Methodist officialdom,” and its adherents were often derided as “fundamentalists.” But more accurately, he wrote, “these brethren hold a traditional understanding of the Christian faith.” The article elicited over 200 supportive letters and phone calls, leading to the creation of Good News in 1967, which focused largely on the magazine of the same name that Keysor would publish for 14 years. Its first issue drew praise from renowned Baptist theologian Carl F.H. Henry, then editor of Christianity Today, and evangelist Billy Graham.
Good News’s first convocation was in 1970. It attracted over 1,600 United Methodists and featured as a speaker Methodist missionary to India and best-selling author E. Stanley Jones. Robustly polemical but carefully aiming its arrows, Good News in its early years challenged the absence of “biblical theology” in the church’s Sunday-school materials, citing the avoidance of “salvation, any good news about the atonement of Jesus Christ, or any hint about the possibility of spiritual new birth.” It began to publish alternative teaching materials, including a resource for confirmation. More sweepingly, Good News challenged the “theological pluralism” officially adopted by the denomination’s General Conference in 1972. Thanks in part to Good News’s tireless insistence that no church can long cohere around a celebration of disagreement, in 1988 the General Conference repudiated pluralism in favor of the “primacy of Scripture.”
The 1972 General Conference, a high-water mark for United Methodist liberalism, was nonetheless the first church convention at which Good News actively lobbied for evangelical renewal. Besides the affirmation of “pluralism,” the conference also ratified permissively pro-choice language on abortion, setting the stage for the UMC’s support of Roe v. Wade a year later. However, that General Conference also ratified its first official disapproval of homosexual practice, which it declared “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As in other Mainline Protestant denominations, homosexuality would become the chief issue dividing traditionalists from liberals for the next four decades.
Although initially dismissed by church elites, Good News’s resistance to liberal hegemony at subsequent quadrennial General Conferences became increasingly formidable. With its populist approach and magazine publication, Good News rallied thousands of evangelical United Methodists to flood the General Conference with petitions urging biblical reforms. Good News sent observers to legislative committees and ultimately helped compel the publication of and easy access to all legislative proposals, which previously were kept in the hands of cagey legislative chairs. Before the General Conferences, Good News aided in establishing local evangelical renewal groups to help elect conservative delegates. In 1988 and 1992, Good News helped to rally pastors of large churches behind succinct orthodox theological statements that gained endorsement from hundreds of thousands of local United Methodists, and these agreements were then unveiled at the General Conference. Good News became the chief counterweight to the liberal church bureaucracy, whose hundreds of staffers had often dominated the convention.
Beyond political organizing at the General Conference and populist rabble-rousing through its bimonthly magazine, Good News successfully worked to bolster United Methodism’s evangelical subculture. Thus, thousands of lay and clergy United Methodists who might have otherwise left the denomination chose to remain. Thousands of potential evangelical clergy, who otherwise would not have considered seeking ordination in United Methodism, have entered the church’s ranks over the last 40 years. The church’s 13 official seminaries in the United States, once all solidly modernist, now at least acknowledge evangelical strength in the church, and almost all have some orthodox faculty. At least two seminaries may have orthodox majorities. No less significantly, nearly one third of the church’s seminarians now attend evangelical Asbury Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Receiving almost no UMC funds, and having no official affiliation with the denomination, Asbury has become the church’s most influential seminary. Located next door to evangelical Asbury College, with Good News’s office just down the street, Wilmore has become the unofficial headquarters of evangelical United Methodists.
The founder of Good News did not live to see the United Methodist promised land. In 1980, Charles Keysor could see little progress in his church. The most recent General Conference had reaffirmed the traditional disapproval of homosexual practice, but it had not yet specifically prohibited the ordination of active homosexuals. In fact, a Good News proposal to do just that had been rejected. Keysor complained that Good News had only slowed the “rate of shift,” but the shift was “still away from us.” Keysor proposed that Good News redirect some of its energy toward ministry with United Methodists who had left the church rather than keep a seemingly dying denomination afloat. Good News’s board disagreed, and Keysor resigned. He died of cancer shortly thereafter.
Keysor’s successor was a young Ohio pastor named James Heidinger, who had chaired the Good News board. Although masterful and virtually tireless in championing theological orthodoxy, Keysor had been abrasive, as prophets outside the walls often are. Heidinger was equally uncompromising in doctrine but sunnier in disposition and successfully recruited seminary faculty and senior clergy to join the Good News cause. His generosity and lack of self-protective egotism facilitated Good News’s role throughout the 1980’s and 90’s as patron of new organizations that would challenge the dominant liberal Zeitgeist on missions, seminary education, abortion, sexuality, and political witness. Building on the foundations of Keysor’s leadership, Heidinger would successfully lead Good News for 28 years.
The 1988 General Conference was a turning point not only for its rejection of theological pluralism but for its approval of a new hymnal (still in the pews today) that is orthodox and free of “gender-neutral” language for God. Efforts to pull traditional hymns that were especially irksome to liberals, such as “Onward Christian Soldiers,” were defeated. The liberal Christian Century editorialized that United Methodism’s new doctrinal statement “strongly propounded the conservative view point” with its emphasis on the Bible. Heidinger himself wrote that the UMC had an “excellent new theological statement,” whose “prominent theme ringing through it with bell-like clarity is the primacy of Scripture.”
During the 1980’s, Good News helped persuade the General Conference to adopt a slightly pro-life stance and to prohibit the ordination of active homosexuals or other persons sexually active outside marriage. In subsequent General Conferences, Good News helped lobby for specific prohibitions against same-sex relations. Any church funding for homosexual advocacy was also prohibited. Liberals raged at these prohibitions, contrasting their defeats with growing permissiveness toward homosexuality in the wider culture. At the 2000 General Conference, Good News helped elect a conservative majority on the denomination’s top court, the Judicial Council. Over the next eight years, the Judicial Council rigorously enforced the church’s prohibitions on homosexuality, culminating in the 2005 ruling to restore to his pulpit a Virginia pastor whose bishop had removed him for not granting immediate church membership to an active homosexual.
Heidinger retired from Good News in 2009, at perhaps the height of evangelical influence within United Methodism. Church liberals, frustrated by the evangelical/African majority in the church, had proposed creating a new, U.S.-only conference that would exclude conservative Africans from U.S. church issues. Although backed by the Council of Bishops, the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected in votes by local annual conferences. African conferences voted nearly unanimously against it. Another proposal to grant church membership automatically to all applicants was also defeated soundly.
UMC liberals, so accustomed to nearly uncontested power over many decades, are now exasperated at the bleakness of their demographic and political future. The church’s most liberal regions in the West and Northeast have been the fastest declining, despite their theme of “open doors” and extravagant hospitality. Meanwhile, the relatively conservative Southeast region is holding its own, while African United Methodism continues to grow. Without Good News’s steadfast church-renewal ministry of 40 years, the current evangelical/African ascendancy likely would never have been attained, as many if not most U.S. evangelicals would have long since abandoned the denomination.
Sadly, and thanks to residual theological liberalism, United Methodism has over the last 40 years lost three million members in the United States. But it has gained three million members in Africa, where the spirit of early Wesleyan revivalism is still strong. Thanks to Good News, that same spirit may yet recapture the U.S. church, ensuring for United Methodism a very different and brighter future than that awaiting the rest of ailing U.S. Mainline Protestantism.