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Dare not to discipline?

"Dare not to discipline?" Continued...

Issue: "Quayle's presidential bid," June 19, 1999

The task force produced a scathing 38-page report covering a variety of doctrinal issues. Among other things, it said UMC seminaries no longer adhere to the basic doctrines of the Christian faith. They tolerate, if not promote, some non-Christian theologies. "This hold that feminist theology has on United Methodist seminaries cannot be underestimated," the board warned.

Likewise, the report said, many leaders-from bishops down-exhibit a reluctance to adhere to basic doctrines such as the deity of Christ and the authority of the Bible. Some espouse feminist theology and acceptance of homosexuality, it noted: "An emphasis on social gospel has eclipsed the need to preach Jesus and Him crucified." And, it alleged, agency executives and staffs are so isolated from the laity they act with almost no regard for the beliefs or wishes of the majority of church members. "All efforts at renewal by organized clergy and laity," it concluded, "have failed to elicit significant improvement in these problems."

To "send a message" to the denomination, the church's Board of Stewards voted last year to redirect about $60,000 of its national giving, or apportionments, to "appropriate" projects in the local conference instead. Earlier, outgoing board chairman Robin Burress, incoming chairman Bucky Smith, and First's long-time pastor, Charles Sinneath, discussed the impending action with Bishop Davis and area superintendent Jamie Jenkins. As Mr. Burress and Mr. Smith remember it, Bishop Davis objected to the diversion of national funds, but "promised" there would be no punishment of the church or the pastor if they took a stand of conscience.

"We took that promise to the bank," Mr. Burress told WORLD.

For this year's budget, the board voted to withhold $67,000 of its $268,087 apportionments from "objectionable" programs. Meanwhile, some influential lay leaders in the congregation saw a dead end ahead. They quietly began to draw up contingency plans for a new church outside the confines of the UMC.

In March, Bishop Davis informed Pastor Sinneath, 60, he would be reassigned elsewhere after 22 years at First, effective this month. (In the UMC system, pastors are considered itinerants, subject to reappointment annually.) The pastor later said he would retire instead.

First's leaders were outraged. The Board of Stewards on April 11 voted 108 to 56 to place its entire apportionment, excluding ministerial pension payments, into escrow. Pastor Sinneath disapproved, saying that much of the money supports work that is "pleasing to God." He defended partial withholding "because conscience compels us not to be part of what is displeasing to God."

Conservatives across the country were stunned. "Bishop Davis was known as the friend of evangelicals on the Council of Bishops," a spokesman for the Good News renewal movement told WORLD. "First Marietta is one of our strongest churches." Many leaders, he added, believe Bishop Davis was under considerable pressure from his fellow bishops to nip the fiscal rebellion in the bud. (Bishop Davis declined WORLD's request for comment.)

Pastor Sinneath told Good News magazine: "We've been part of a system for 38 years that prides itself on its tolerance and tolerates many things we believe God has declared unacceptable. Yet that same system has demonstrated its absolute intolerance of any dissent that has a dollar sign attached to it."

Bishop Davis announced that another popular evangelical preacher in the conference, Joe Peabody of 3,600-member First UMC in nearby Norcross, would be First Marietta's new pastor.

The fledgling breakaway movement nevertheless proceeded with plans. More than 700 people, mostly members of First Marietta, showed up at a borrowed church hall for an "organizational meeting" of the independent Wesleyan Fellowship on April 27. The group promptly called Mr. Sinneath as its pastor. That same day, the bishop relieved Pastor Sinneath of all his duties at First Marietta and gave him several hours to clear out.

Pastor Sinneath says he respects the bishop and harbors no ill will toward him. Their relationship has been cordial, he said.

The Wesleyan Fellowship has been meeting Tuesday nights at a Presbyterian church building, with attendance nearing 1,000. Leaders are looking for permanent quarters.

Officials at First Marietta late last month announced they were cutting 18 of 45 employees and $1 million of its $3.5 million budget.

As of now, it appears Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes will continue to call First Marietta his home church. But U.S. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) will switch to Wesleyan Fellowship. Said he: "I don't feel comfortable staying with a particular church that penalizes its pastors for living by what they believe is the Word of God."

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