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Post on hell lands pastor in hot water Heather Hahn, Mar 28, 2011
By Heather Hahn United Methodist News Service
A Facebook post questioning the existence of an eternal hell proved to be a point of no return for a United Methodist student pastor and his rural North Carolina congregation.
However, there is more to the story than what has been widely reported about Chad Holtz’s departure from Marrow’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Henderson, N.C.
Mr. Holtz was reported to have lost his pulpit at Marrow’s Chapel after he posted a long Facebook note about losing belief in hell. He later also posted “What I Lost Losing Hell” on his personal blog.
In the March 2 post, he discussed how his shift in belief changed him. He also indicated support for Love Wins (HarperOne), a new book by the Rev. Rob Bell, an evangelical megachurch pastor in Grand Rapids, Mich., and critic of the traditional view that hell is a place of eternal torment for condemned souls.
“I think all Christians should at the very least hold out hope that God will not give up on Creation until ALL is reconciled and redeemed—every last sheep—every last prodigal—every last coin,” Mr. Holtz told United Methodist News Service. “Romans 11:32 declares that God has imprisoned ALL in disobedience so that God may have mercy on all.”
The loss of his job sparked a flurry of news reports, but both he and the United Methodist Church’s North Carolina Conference say that’s not the entire situation.
“While it’s true that Holtz is no longer serving as pastor of Marrow’s Chapel, he was not fired or dismissed by the North Carolina Conference,” said North Carolina Conference Bishop Al Gwinn. “Church members asked him to leave and he simply agreed to do so.”
Mr. Holtz was a fourth-year student at Duke Divinity School from the Holston Conference, which encompasses churches in parts of Tennessee, Georgia and Virginia. Even before his controversial post, he had already planned to leave Marrow’s Chapel in June after his graduation.
In the United Methodist Church, bishops appoint pastors to local churches after a process of consultation and matching clergy skills with local church needs. Individual congregations do not have the authority to dismiss appointed pastors. That decision is made at the district and conference level, often in consultation with a congregation’s pastor-parish relations committee.
But in his three years at Marrow’s Chapel, Mr. Holtz sometimes had a fraught relationship with some in the congregation, both he and conference leaders said.
Earlier posts on his blog about homosexuality and displays of patriotism in church had previously caused tension in his congregation, Mr. Holtz said in correspondence with UMNS via Facebook.
Mr. Holtz’s pastor-parish relations committee, his local church supporters, advisers and mentors, discussed the concerns with him over many months, the conference said in a statement.
But Mr. Holtz said he and the congregation were content for him to finish his time there. “The ‘losing hell’ piece was just the final straw, as I understand it,” he said.
“Both Chad and the committee agreed that he would not post controversial topics online,” said the Rev. Gray Southern, his district superintendent.
“He broke the agreement, and the committee members felt betrayed,” Dr. Southern said. “The committee asked Holtz to leave the church, and he agreed.”
Mr. Holtz said he knew he no longer could be an effective pastor for the congregation. He also said Dr. Southern “has been fantastic in all this.”
Mr. Holtz preached his last service on March 20. An interim supply pastor or pastors will work with the congregation until a new appointment is made, effective July 1.
Holtz and hell
Mr. Holtz said he believes many people know hell all too well.
“When I hear stories of genocide and abuse I think ‘hell,’” he said. “When I hear stories of addicts and broken families I think ‘hell.’ When I hear stories of poverty, slavery, economic policies that pander to those ‘in’ while ignoring those ‘out’ I think ‘hell,’” he said.
He also believes in a Judgment Day, when sin will be named and defeated by God.
“I believe that it will be an awesome and terrible thing to stand before a Holy and Righteous God if we have lived in such a way that has mocked God’s image throughout God’s creation. That moment may feel like hell—and quite hot,” he said. “The question, though, is this: What next? Does God’s love and God’s desire that all be saved, win? Can God’s will trump our own? We often say that we will only get what we want. I hope not. My ‘want-meter’ is often broken.”
What UMC teaches
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, does not contain any specific statement on heaven or hell.
However, the Evangelical United Brethren Church, one of the denomination’s predecessors, states in Article XII of its Confession of Faith: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”
The Confession, adopted in 1963, and the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church from 1808 are both part of the United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards in the Book of Discipline. As such, they cannot be altered—even by General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body.
A particular belief about heaven or hell is not part of the denomination’s baptismal covenant, and therefore is not a requirement for membership in the United Methodist Church.
However, Mr. Holtz’s status as a pastor puts him in a different category, said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship.
“This is where Chad got himself into trouble,” Mr. Burton-Edwards said. “He was articulating doctrine that was contrary to the doctrine of this church.”
No ill will
Mr. Holtz, a U.S. Navy veteran, remains a United Methodist and bears no ill toward the denomination. Still, long before this recent controversy, he had decided he needed to take a sabbatical from his church work to focus more on his wife and five children, two of whom were adopted from Ethiopia.
In February, he withdrew from the commissioning process in the Holston Conference, said the Rev. Dan Taylor, the conference secretary and director of clergy services. But Mr. Holtz could choose to re-enter that process again at a later date.
“I am a Methodist,” Mr. Holtz said. “I love the UMC. I feel called to plant a church one day, when the time is right to return to parish life. If that is with the UMC (i.e.—they still want me), then I would be thrilled. If not, then apparently God has something else in mind.”