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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.


  • Jeremy

    Hey Ray,
    I agree with you on the theological aspects that you discuss and that need to be seriously addressed within our denomination. However, it’ll come as no surprise that you and I will disagree on the waving and placing the American banner at the Seminary in churches and even in our Christian homes. I love the line by Larry Norman, “This world is not my home, I’m just passing through.”

    I believe as many that the church needs to seriously consider how closely it embraces any nation that it finds itself in, and yes that includes our own, regardless of how much we like it here.

  • James

    Having a biblical view of our stewardship as per the Genesis mandate, I am sad at the false piety expressed by Larry Norman (as cited by Jeremy) that abdicates such biblical stewardship. The world as ruled by the Heavenly Emperor is our home, and gnostic otherworldliness that denies it in favour of some ethereal “heaven” is not biblical.
    Bully Mark Tooley and Ray!

  • Bob

    Hummm… not biblical, huh? Jesus did say to the disciples “I go to prepare a place for you.. that where I am, there ye may be also.”

    The apostle Paul seemed awfully concerned about Heaven. He says so in many places. Here’s one: “…knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.”

    I think I’ll go with what he says and what Jesus says. Is that okay with you?

  • Jeremy

    James, it seems that you mistake this world for the world that is to come, i.e. *New* Heaven & *New* Earth, and the *New* Jerusalem. These things that we know now are corruptions of the created and that which is to come. I too believe in a physical resurrection, but if the world that is to come looks like what we see today then I think I’ll just have to spend eternity more than a little disappointed in the Almighty. And that includes the ideas of nationalism, conservative or liberal ideologies, war, individualism, consumerism, etc etc etc.

    What’s more is that when I die and stand before Yahweh I’m pretty sure He won’t be wrapped in an American flag nor will He be a member of the GOP, nor the DNC…oh my how utterly disappointing it is when we confuse the ways and the trappings of this world as broken and tarnished as they are for the ways and things of God. I simply pray for some heavenly imagination for how we live and interact with each other, instead of us embracing the broken systems of this corrupt and dying world.

  • James

    Bob said: “The apostle Paul seemed awfully concerned about Heaven. He says so in many places. Here’s one: ‘…knowing in yourselves that ye have in heaven a better and an enduring substance.’
    I think I’ll go with what he says ”

    The heart of Gnosticizing otherworldliness lies partly in inability to know Scripture. You cite Heb 10:34 as if Paul wrote it, but we are certain that just about anybody but Paul in fact wrote it.

    Are you KJV only? I ask because the KJV creatively attributes Hebrews to Pauline authorship with its uninspired superscription. In addition, your citation of the KJV is from corrupted Byzantine textual traditions that add “in [the] heavens” to the Greek text.
    You really should (except for its beautiful poetry) move away from the KJV (or, better, learn Greek) if you want to know what God has told us.
    A better translation is:
    “For you showed sympathy to the prisoners and accepted joyfully the seizure of your property, knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one” (Heb 10:34 NASB95).

    The same applies theologically for the Jesus quote; Jesus never denies the Genesis 1 worldview emphasizing our home here in a God-ruled earth nor, like Jeremy, advocates abandonment of our stewardship, as do those who ridicule anyone who would “polish brass on the Titanic.”

    Our God-given earth is not the Titanic, and rulership in Christ’s name is not broken systemic death (unless one abandons it to the enemy of God while claiming to wanna get outta here and just go to heaven). Jesus already said centuries ago in Rev 21:5 “new I make all things”; i.e., renewal does not merely lie in the future but has been in process since the first century–that is why we do not abandon His using us here and now solely in favour of there and later.

  • James

    Jesus already said centuries ago in Rev 21:5 “*new* I make all things”; i.e., renewal does not merely lie in the future but has been in process since the first century–that is why we do not abandon His using us here and now solely in favour of there and later.
    One of the God-ordained methods of global renewal is our American government: “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. . . ; 4 for it is a minister of God to you for good. . . ; for it is a minister of God . . . . 5 Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing” (Rom 13:1-6 NASB95).

    Our American government is intended by God to be a servant of Christ, and any dismissal of it as hopelessly corrupt is not according to a biblical worldview but hinders our effective stewardship and performance of the divine will here on earth.

  • Peter

    I never liked they Hymn “This is my father’s world…It ought to be purged from the Hymn Book and replaced by the much more solid theology of…Larry Norman. After all, the world belongs to satan and the demons, any thought that it belongs to the Creator is heresy!

  • Jeremy

    James you do of course realize that the vast majority of times that God uses goverments in the Bible it is in judgment of Israel; Assyrians, Babylonians etc, so I’m not exactly sure if you are equating the US to Assyria or Babylonia but either way I don’t think its a good thing.

    Furthermore suggesting that the US government is a certain method that God is bringing renewal by simply citing Romans 13:1-6 carries with it several serious questions.

    First: using this passage in this manner suggests that all governments are used of God for the purposes of His global renewal, and if not then what criteria are you using to distinquish? Is it only the governments that we like that are being used of God, or might we simply be allowing our “love of country” to make us blind to our nation’s failings and sin, as have scores of people in other nation’s past who suffered under the same nationalistic blended Christianity.

    Second: Saying that the US is part of God’s global renewal begs the question as to exactly how the US fits into that plan; is it our abortion on demand, neglect of the poor, embrace of homosexuality, constitutional protection of pornography, removal of the 10 Commandments from court house walls, fighting unjust wars, or the corruption of our elected officials by special interest groups and the rich? In what ways do these things fit into God’s renewal? Or does God simply turn a blind eye to the ways our government sins, or is it just we who do that?

    Furthermore the Revelation 21:5 passage “behold I am making all things new” comes after the resurrection of the dead in Rev 20:4-6 meaning that God’s work is completed in the eschaton, and while God’s Kingdom is both “here and not yet” i.e. His Kingdom represented on earth by His people, it is not the governments of this world that are God’s Kingdom it is instead His people.

  • Jeremy

    Funny how some take one line of a post and beat it to death to stand victoriously over their triumph thinking the victory is won while wholly ignoring the actual point being made with the rest of the post.

    Its also interesting that some take the fact that the physical creation is God’s world and apply that fact to the human things in this world; i.e. “This is my Father’s world”=”This is my Father’s Country”.

    BTW, any who think that I’m an advocate for abandoning the biblical notion of stewardship over creation simply needs to sit in on my sermon next Sunday; i.e. Earth Day.

  • Bert

    I was reared in the Methodist Church and heard sin and salvation preached, but never what it meant to me personally – because a relationship with Christ as my PERSONAL SAVIOR was never presented as the means to salvation. Thanks to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in my freshman year of college, I am saved. I wonder how many souls the Methodist Church lost over the last 4 or 5 decades?

  • Bob

    Hummm… I see that you didn’t refute the words of the Lord Jesus from John 14.

    Further, I presume that you are interested in laying up treasure in this world where moth and rust corrupts rather than laying up treasure in heaven.

    Interesting how that the Lord Jesus says that; “My kingdom is not of this world…” Seems like you feel some special link to this world rather than the world that Christ is interested in.

  • I recently heard Christy T. Smith from the United Methodist Committee on Relief talk about global warming ( ). Her theological case was compelling, but even more so the economic cost to people of faith who donate to disaster relief, and how that will have to increase to meet the need of disasters. Startling information. Thank God people of faith are speaking out on this.

  • CD

    Tooley is a former CIA operative.

    Only God knows what he’s done.

    And now he’s applying what he learned here in America and to the United Methodist Church.

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