Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring.
While running for the U.S. Senate in 1858, Abraham Lincoln quoted a portion of Mathew 12:25, which has been translated as, “A House divided against itself cannot stand.”
He was talking about slavery, but 165 years later, our country and some of our cherished institutions still haven’t grasped that united is better than divided.
There’s an adage that the two subjects you don’t discuss in polite company are religion and politics. But those two topics are now hard not to mention together because both are immersed in culture wars.
If you believe your political opponents will destroy America, or if you believe the other side is evil and headed for hell because of their actions or beliefs, it’s hard to later come to an agreement. Politicians and church leaders who try to compromise around cultural issues often find their own base or congregation forming a firing squad.
Federal government leaders struggled for months before finally reaching a deal that (if approved by Congress) will allow America to pay its credit card debt for money already spent. How will we ever come to agreement on emotional topics like abortion, book censorship, gun control, and LGBTQ issues?
America is a house divided, and it’s not a shock that church denominations are feeling the pain of that division.
Currently, the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church is mired in a divorce that's been four years in the making over a culture war issue. That divorce could make the “United” portion of the name obsolete.
Methodists have a proud history on civil rights. Nearly all early Methodist leaders were opposed to slavery, and many were active abolitionists. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, Methodists played a key role by hosting movement meetings and by desegregating churches.
But the current schism within the denomination reflects the polarization dividing the country. Specifically, the United Methodist position allowing openly LGBTQ people to serve as pastors, and permitting same sex marriages to be performed in the church, has prompted some congregations to leave the conference.
I’m certainly not a theologian, but I became a United Methodist because it allowed me to question and use reason to grow as a Christian. It’s a “big tent church” where different views are tolerated and encouraged. People are allowed to disagree, and still be united with the church.
Recently 83 of the 750 Iowa United Methodist congregations voted to leave to join the more conservative Global Methodists or to become independent.
To compromise, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the Iowa Bishop’s appointed council issued a directive to pastors and church congregations last year: “Follow your conscience even if that includes allowing same sex marriages or gay clergy.” It was suggested that if a minister agreed to perform same sex marriages and the congregation was opposed, that he/she could perform the ceremonies at an alternate location or in another church that accepted same sex unions. If a congregation approved of same sex unions, and the minister didn’t, another minister could perform the ceremony in the church.
But that compromise fell flat.
The group splitting maintains they will never ordain LGBTQ pastors, and they will never allow same-sex marriages within the church, even though same-sex marriage has been legal nationally since 2015, and a Gallup poll from June 2022 showed 71 percent of Americans believe same-sex couples should be recognized as having the same rights as traditional marriages.
While those leaving may be leaving for quite personal reasons, I suspect there are four broad reasons that mirror the greater political cultural war.
First, there is misinformation circulating in some of the churches poised to leave. A few vocal pastors are weaving a conspiracy theory, saying the United Methodist church is violating basic Christian doctrine in other theological areas. United Methodist leaders say that’s categorically false. Those few pastors are ginning up fear as a tactic to win votes to leave the denomination.
If that sounds familiar, that’s exactly what’s happening in the political culture divide. The majority party in the Iowa legislature used fear and misinformation to justify attacking LGBTQ people with multiple new discriminatory laws.
Second, some people in the church refuse to acknowledge LGBTQ people have been a part of almost every denomination since organized religion began, but they were suffocating in church closets out of fear of rejection. Some conservative church people would like to lock those closets permanently, pretending LGBTQ people don’t exist, at least not in their communities.
Third, for some it’s about money. They may not like the United Methodist apportionment system, which requires local churches to pay a certain amount to be part of the denomination. Those funds support connectivity with the state and world organization, but some congregations may think it costs too much.
Still others are willing to accept the split from the United Methodist Church because they love their local church home and don’t want to fight with most of their friends in the congregation who want to leave. They go along to get along.
Abe was right. A house divided is simply not as powerful as a house united. The culture war will end in the country and in the church when we recognize everyone has value and compromise has the beauty and power to unite.
Top image: Calvary United Methodist Church in Walcott, one of 83 Iowa congregations leaving the United Methodist Church over disagreements regarding doctrine related to LGBTQ people. Photo from July 2022 by Farragutful, available via Wikimedia Commons through a creative commons license.