FACT VS. FICTION
BIBLICAL WITNESS FELLOWSHIP
In 1977, a movement came into existence in response to the first report on human sexuality affirmed by Synod. The spontaneously formed fellowship called itself United Church People for Biblical Witness. This group published theological work and news through two publications in an effort to recall the United Church of Christ to the mainstream Christianity that had been the life-blood of our churches since their founding. In 1984, this movement reorganized as the Biblical Witness Fellowship and extended its vision to the renewal of the local church, and renewal of missions.
Since then BWF has been the largest renewal movement in the United Church of Christ. As a movement it is not a membership-focused organization and the level and measurement of its support has varied. Over the last decade circulation of its newspaper, The Witness has risen to over 22,000 and according to a study of the UCC conducted recently by the Hartford Seminary Foundation, some 26% of the membership of the United Church of Christ hold evangelical convictions and beliefs on core issues congruent with those of BWF.
Biblical Witness Fellowship was founded for the purpose of pursuing reformation and renewal within the United Church of Christ. It remains singularly committed to that end and has no other function or purpose. BWF works in various forms of strategic alliances with over 30 other renewal organizations from all of the “mainline” denominations and is profoundly ecumenical in its vision, sharing wholeheartedly the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ, “That all may be one.” Contrary to the ‘conspiracy’ theorists in the mainline denominations, these renewal movements are courageous grassroots movements and organizations speaking for authentic Christianity and their own heritage at risk to themselves and often at considerable sacrifice.
Ø BWF receives little or no funding from outside organizations or foundations. We have received less than $100,000 in foundation funding in our entire 26 year history. A review of our records indicates that we have received $6,000 in total funding during that entire 26 year period from foundations mentioned in the various “right wing conspiracy” attack pieces currently being published and promoted. Well over 99% of all BWF support comes from grassroots UCC members. This stands in contrast to the United Church of Christ, which receives only 41% of its support from grassroots members and the remainder from an array of foundations, funds and sources some of which in fact do represent an extreme ideological interest. The mission of the Institute on Religion and Democracy has been grossly misrepresented by its detractors, and has in fact served the cause of Jesus Christ well. BWF, however, has never had any organizational connection to nor has it ever received any financial support from the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Ø BWF has authored and presented through supporting churches 7 resolutions over the last four Synods. Three of these seven resolutions have been passed by the Synod in amended form consistent with their original intent. A fourth passed as a substitute resolution authored by Confessing Christ members. This makes BWF the second most influential “voice without vote” organization in the UCC, second only to the GLBT Coalition.
These resolutions are:
1) Lordship of Christ, The Cross, Crown and Orb (2005) Affirmed
2) Integrity in Diversity (calling the UCC to respect evangelical diversity)
3) Seeking the Mind of Christ in Public Policy (2003) Defeated
4) Mutual Respect Within the Faith Community (mandated that UCC leaders making public statements denote they are speaking only for themselves and not the members of the UCC) (2001) Affirmed
5) Reaffirming the Trinitarian Basis of our Ecumenism (2001) Defeated
6) Affirming and Strengthening Marriage (1999) Affirmed
7) Standing in Solidarity with the Persecuted Church (1999) Affirmed
Ø BWF has worked diligently to maintain the unity of the UCC and to discourage churches from leaving the UCC. These efforts have included:
1990 - BWF formally appeals to the United Church Board of World Ministries at their annual meeting to work cooperatively for the revitalization of missions in the UCC. This overture is rejected, but this initiative led to:
1991 - Dialogue in Cleveland with a Mennonite facilitator between 10 leaders of the BWF and 10 leaders including President Paul Sherry of the UCC. This 3 day extensive dialogue agreed to pursue mutually:
> Efforts to work together toward the revitalization of global missions
> Efforts toward having one of the seven UCC seminaries become ‘evangelical friendly’ or recognition of one or more of the major evangelical seminaries for recommended UCC training of UCC seminarians with evangelical convictions
> Having the national leadership openly encourage Conferences and Associations to cooperate in the care, licensing, ordination and placement of Evangelical UCC seminarians pursuing a call in ministry.
> With 1, 2, and 3 in place, BWF is to encourage contributions to OCWM
Unfortunately the Executive Council meeting only weeks later refused to honor the agreements in principle negotiated in the dialogue. This disappointment resulted in a meeting at Beavercreek Ohio in which disgruntled churches felt betrayed and began leaving the UCC in growing numbers. BWF as a result temporarily lost support and influence.
1996 - February - BWF seeking to do all possible to bring its own house in order, apologizes to the members, churches and leaders of the UCC for any actions and word untaken in anger or in an unchristlike manner. This apology is printed in the UCNews and BWF rededicates itself to its founding purpose. Care is taken to make certain that all participants in the movement are members of the UCC dedicated to reformation and renewal.
1998 - May - BWF sends a letter to OCLL the national body responsible for the manual on ministry and other matter concerning placement and standing of pastors pleading with them to speak out in support of fair treatment for evangelical pastors and seminarians. There is no response.
1999 - February - BWF proposes to the Executive Council that it engage in conversation with BWF toward the formation of a non-geographic conference for evangelically inclined congregations. The intention was to stem the growing exodus that had catapulted the UCC that year into the position of loss leader among protestant denominations and to give evangelicals a genuine place of refuge and identity within the UCC. The Executive Council formally rejected the proposal.
2001 - Synod - John Thomas, under fire for sanctioning statements by SIECUS, makes the landmark statement, “There can be limited tolerance for those who are intolerant,” sending a chilling message to those who dissent from the rigid ideology of UCC leadership.
2003 - Synod - BWF brings to the Synod the landmark resolution, “Integrity in Diversity” which calls on Synod to end the hostility and intolerance toward evangelicals in the UCC and to embrace a genuine and sincere diversity. BWF makes clear to Synod that this is a “world is watching” resolution that will signal very clearly whether churches should stay or leave. Synod defeating this resolution with the statement “we will not be threatened,” knowingly sent a message that churches in disagreement with the ideology of the UCC leadership had no place at the table in the UCC.
2003 - September - BWF sends a letter to the Conference Ministers in the wake of the disappointing result at Synod offering to meet with them to diffuse tensions, find common ground and work together for unity. BWF receives no response.
2005 - February - Conference Ministers issue a defensive letter attempting to transfer their personal responsibility for the loss of congregations and members to those who dissent. They include a crudely written, inaccurate and angry piece written by the Missouri conference alleging that there is a sinister conspiracy to undo the UCC. Only 7 of the 39 Conferences are willing to circulate the letter but the attempt of the Conference ministers to demonize their critics only deepens mistrust and division.
2005 - Synod - delegates vote to redefine marriage. Dozens of congregations immediately vote to leave. Over 200 others initiate various study initiatives to consider a loving and faithful response. Churches in North Carolina who have no affiliation with BWF issue the “Lexington Confession” as a spontaneous response. Churches across the country begin to affirm this confession as a first step in expressing dissent. Some Conference ministers begin denouncing simple efforts at dissent and diversity as anti-UCC.
Ø 1957 – 2004 The United Church of Christ has had a net loss of members and congregations in all but 3 years of its existence. The denomination has had NO successful years since 1964.
Ø 1984 – 1991 The formation of BWF reduces the losses in membership and congregations, cutting the rate of loss more than in half.
Ø 1991 – 2005 An increasingly divisive ideological agenda by denominational leaders and antagonism following the failed dialogue increases the rates of loss to their highest in UCC history.
Ø A Study by Hartford Seminary Foundation in 2002 reveals that 26% of UCC members self identify as evangelical, some 25% self identify as liberal and the remaining 49% identify somewhere in a spectrum between these two.
Ø A substantial percentage of UCC congregations have reduced or eliminated UCC financial contributions to the suggested “dues” required by Conferences or less.
It has been the strategy of some in the UCC to demonize BWF since its inception, with accusations of dishonesty, inaccuracy, or malevolent intent to cause churches to leave or to form a new denomination. BWF publications are carefully checked both by their editors and their critics. While no publication is perfect, the number of valid errors found in BWF publications is far lower than the normal rate of editorial error in publications of its kind or those published by the United Church of Christ. Errors are corrected in print and opposing opinions are freely published. The notion that BWF is part of a “vast right wing conspiracy” that is intentionally seeking to divide and destroy the United Church of Christ has proven false and irrational. We are still here.
There are four major streams of the Christian church in America today which are generally described as Evangelical, Charismatic, Fundamental, and Mainline. While major survey sources (Barna, Hartford Seminary, etc.) differ slightly, the consensus is that approximately 92% of all people in church on any given Sunday worship in a church identified with one of the first three streams. The growing presence of emerging new American churches planted from Africa, Asia, South and Central America will only reinforce this trend in the decades to come.
Of the 8% of Protestants who still worship in a mainline church, 30 – 50% of those are evangelicals. This means that only 4 – 6% of all American Christians identifies with “progressive” or “liberal” Christianity. Using the rhetoric of “fundamentalist,” “conservative” or “religious right” to marginalize this vast majority of American Christians is ignorant. Deeply committed to racial justice, global missions on behalf of the “least of these,” and strong support for women in ministry, BWF is viewed by the Christian mainstream as being somewhat “left of center.”
In the United Church of Christ, Denominational leaders and Conference Ministers bear personal responsibility for the loss of members and churches. This is a sad legacy. Their guilt, unfortunately, seems to have birthed an angry, defensive reaction against those who dissent. Demonizing BWF, or any other voice of witness, is to blame the small boy for the nakedness of the emperor.
11-25-05 amended 5/27/2009
P.O. Box 102
Candia, NH 03034