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Review: Taking Back The United Methodist Church

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With the United Methodist General Conference only weeks away, Bristol House just released Taking Back The United Methodist Church. Tooley is the United Methodist Action Director at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and has been a passionate advocate for theological integrity and reform within United Methodism for two decades. The book provides an excellent overview of some of the most egregious separation of some United Methodist leaders from Christian Scripture and traditions, including an all out embrace of a contradiction of sexual norms, and stale 1960’s liberal political philosophies. It’s an equally strong account at chronicling the renewal efforts within the Church at large, and the fruit of these efforts.

Tooley goes into detail about Bishop J. Joseph Sprague’s denial of the full and eternal deity of Jesus Christ. Sprague is now retired, formally the Bishop of Northern Illinois. He also provides snippets from a thoughtful response from a newly elected Bishop of Florida at the time, Timothy W. Whitaker. Whitaker was almost alone among the Bishops in criticizing Sprague, calling him “a person of deep faith,” whose comments at Iliff School of Theology on Christology were “incoherent.” Whitaker criticized Sprague for contradicting the Nicene Creed’s affirmation of Christ as “eternally begotten of the Father.” Whitaker himself wondered in his critique, if Sprague had fallen into the ancient heresy of adoptionism, which is a denial of the Hypostatic Union of Christ. Sprague also denied essential beliefs such as the virgin birth, a physical resurrection, and substitutionary atonement.

Bishop Marion Edwards of the North Carolina Conference also criticized Sprague. Additionally, the United Methodist Book of Discipline says the responsibility of a bishop is to “guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret the faith evangelically and prophetically.” Sprague was never truly held to account for his teachings by the United Methodist Church, but it did open a much needed conversation and validation of the nature and character of Christ. Sprague is , “The most vocal prominent active liberal bishop in Protestantism today,” Tooley declared. Sprague responded by denying that he was liberal, saying, “I consider myself a radical.”

Tooley also discusses radically heretical conferences at United Methodist Seminaries across the country, where the divinity and character of Christ is openly mocked. Other conferences adoringly worshiped feminist gods, and exalted other outrageous forms of religious pluralism, and strongly embraced pro-abortion measures.
In addition he speaks at depth on the political views of United Methodist Bishops. Tooley correctly notes:

The Council of Bishops often speaks as a reunion of former hippies of the 1960s and 1970s, constantly rehashing the old protest themes of American imperialism, militarism and economic exploitation. Their statements imply that the world would be entirely prosperous and peaceful were it not for the insidious influence of the U.S. In recent decades, they have never collectively expressed concern about totalitarian Marxism or about radical Islam, both of which have murdered millions over the last century, and both of which see Christianity as a special enemy.

Tooley provides insight into all of the recent United Methodist General Conferences, which includes a plethora of attention induced antics by homosexual activists, who want to overturn the traditional teachings of the Church. Tooley is right to note that the debate is really a greater debate and disagreement about the authority of Scripture. More recently, votes to affirm traditional views on sexuality have increased at the General Conferences.

He also provides thoughts and dialogue on IRD and their opponents, which not surprisingly are many. Chief among them are some bishops, the General Board of Church and Society, and Dr. Andrew Weaver. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Weaver in Albany, NY, while covering an event for IRD, while he berated me publicly and then again when I went to meet him and to pledge to quote him accurately, it was nothing like the experience for a staff member at IRD. Tooley explains:

When he absurdly emailed the mother of one young IRD staffer to complain of the IRD staffer’s “disgraceful” behavior, the mother predictably sided with her son against Weaver. Even more outrageously, Weaver had copied the email to the mother’s professional colleagues, having harvested their names from the internet. The mother had her employer’s attorney ask Weaver to end his email campaign targeting her office.

Some opponents have amazingly compared IRD with the Ku Klux Klan as well as being under the control of Right Wing Catholics. Jim Winkler, who heads the GBCS described IRD as, “a snake that has sunk its fangs into the dog. It’s lame. It’s poison.”

Tooley’s book also stresses strong optimism for vibrant reform. This is largely because of the substantial growth of United Methodism in Africa. African Methodists are much more conservative and evangelical than America’s contemporary brand of Methodism. Denominational leaders in Africa are becoming more critical in their rebuke of United Methodist leaders in the U.S. Additionally, they are speaking refreshingly about the timeless truths of Evangelical Christianity and evangelism. In the U.S., United Methodism is losing over a thousand members per week. The more liberal Western Jurisdiction of United Methodism is rapidly declining, while areas containing evangelical richness and vitality are holding steady or even increasing.

Another strength of Tooley’s account is that he tells of his own personal story of becoming involved in United Methodist renewal. It’s a story that seems to contradict the accounts of Tooley by opponents as being an agent of mainline destruction, who is funded by outside agitators.

I myself began attending a United Methodist Church in college while in Mississippi. I then joined the United Methodist Church soon after, mainly as a reaction against fundamentalism, and because I appreciated it’s practical theology and rich sacramental theology within protestantism. Soon I went to seminary at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. I first met Mark Tooley in the seminary cafeteria when he was in Wilmore for a Good News board meeting. I expressed my concerns to him about American flags being removed by order of the Dean of the Chapel when a cafeteria employee who was a Gulf War Veteran put up little flags to show support for our troops. The Asbury administrator stated of his decision, “We do not wave flags as a sign of conquest,” thereby comparing our soldiers negatively with anti-democratic conquering armies of the past. Mark Tooley listened to me, when others brushed me off.

I worked with Tooley on a number projects, and covered conferences for United Methodist Action on a number of occasions. I never grasped the hysteria of his opponents, where the mere mention of his name could cause mouths to foam with dissent. It’s one thing to be against IRD and renewal efforts, but the irrational manner of many attacks do however point to the slipping power of institutionalized liberal church leaders.

The United Methodist Church is after all a denomination of connection, where the laity should be entitled to hear about what is going on of concern in their Church. Additionally, I covered wonderful conferences on renewal efforts and the Confessing Movement for IRD.

In all my conversations with Tooley I never heard him speak of those against his efforts in an unkind or irrational manner. I found him to be a person of immense integrity and a faithful witness to the work of Christ and the Church. I admire the work and commitment he has put into the renewal of the United Methodist Church, whose vibrancy is essential to the Church at large, and the laity in the pews. Tooley’s account is a must read for those within United Methodism, and those interested in the work of this long and arduous task, which will ultimately be rewarded.

The book appropriately closes with God’s word to the Church at Sardis from Revelation, “Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God.”

Ray Nothstine is opinion editor of the the North State Journal in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.

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