Pages

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Why Similar Evangelical Denominations Don't Merge

In commenting on the ongoing split between the United Methodist Church and the newly-formed
Global Methodist Church, Betsy Phillips asked the following:

But the No. 1 most baffling thing is that the reason the Methodist church has split in the past is that a minority of Methodists want a more conservative church, so they break away to set one up. So if you’re sitting in a United Methodist Church and you feel like it’s gotten too liberal for you, you have many, many conservative Methodist churches you could go to instead. Why wouldn’t you just join one of them?

Oh boy, I have thoughts on that one!

There are many, many conservative Wesleyan denominations in the United States, and they don't all use 'Methodist' in their name. Two noteworthy examples of such would be the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the Church of the Nazarene. There's also the Wesleyan Church, but at least it mentions the initiators of the movement (John & Charles Wesley) in its name. Of course there are others with Methodist in the name, such as the Free Methodist Church and the Congregational Methodist Church. So, why doesn't the group leaving the United Methodist Church now just merge with one of these?

A positive spin on it would be that the people who are forming the Global Methodist Church have shared common experiences in the United Methodist Church, and have a distinctive culture and approach to being the church and doing theology that they would like to carry on. Were they to merge with an existing conservative Wesleyan denomination that could be lost, or even cause trouble within the resulting body. After all, they might reason, the United Methodist Church itself came about through the merger of the United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church, and from their perspective that was a fiasco. 

A more negative spin, and one that I tend to favor, is that it's a matter of power. The people who have been leading the Wesleyan Covenant Association all these years have a certain seniority and influence. And to be sure, it's not necessarily a matter of money or status in the world at large. People want to be held in esteem by their peers, and it can be very difficult to find the humility to blend into another body where one is less well-known. In other words, leaders of the new Global Methodist Church would risk losing status and influence if they were to instead lead a merger with another denomination, and that simply can't happen.

Christians often cite the prayer of Jesus for unity among his disciples as a a worthwhile goal, but in my opinion most of them don't mean it in any practical terms. For evangelicals it's enough that they show up to See You At The Pole and the March for Jesus. They rationalize denominations as a way of organizing people and resources to carry out the work of the church, avoiding the simple fact that there could be a far greater economy of resources if they weren't duplicating efforts in every town, territory, and nation on earth. Even in an age in which denominational branding is less important, and non-denominational churches are thriving, evangelicals are not interested in coordinating regularly with each other beyond the ministries that they are a part of. And in the case of the evangelical denominations, the leaders have every reason not to want to lose their position, as I've already said.

There are a number of denominations that are so close theologically as to make no sense for them to be apart, as I see it. This is the case with many of the conservative Methodist denominations and their Wesleyan-Holiness kin. The reasons they remain separate are just as I described. First, they have distinct histories and culture. Second, mergers would dilute the influence of some. 

It's just as well for the world that evangelical denominations squander their resources and turn people off with their divisions. The sooner anti-science, pro-bigotry movements can die, the better it will be for all of us.