Since the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, I have been wrestling with the suggestion by many of the top leaders in United Methodism that the deep disagreements in United Methodism about marriage and human sexuality ought to be resolved by locating them in the category of those things contextually determined. And now, contextualization seems to be a key area where the Commission on a Way Forward, which has just concluded its work together, and the Council of Bishops are focusing as they prepare to offer legislation for the 2019 General Conference.
The United Methodist Church would benefit from a careful and sustained conversation about what things are appropriately determined at the level of the local church, district, Annual Conference, etc. It would be even more helpful for The UMC to surface the values that inform these decisions. The UMC may even more desperately need clarity about what practices are binding on all, even when there is disagreement, and why. In our current moment, however, the urgent task before United Methodism is whether God’s design for and involvement in marriage is to be worked out at the level of the local church, various other regional levels, or the General Conference.
As I have read and considered the variety of proposals that would ultimately move disagreements about marriage and human sexuality from the General Conference level to lower levels of the church, I have become increasingly concerned about the integrity of the witness and ministry of United Methodism were such approaches to be enacted. Here is the way the “One Church Model” was described in a recent news release from the Council of Bishops:
The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.
I realize that the Council of Bishops is still deliberating and that the above news release does not represent a final or formal proposal from the Bishops. It is also only one of the two sketches that was provided. I also believe that the members of the Commission on a Way Forward and the moderators of the Commission have done their best, sacrificing time, energy, and resources, in order to serve the church. I am grateful for this work. What follows is an attempt to honor the work that has been done so far by giving it serious attention and consideration in hopes of serving the church that I love.
My deep concern with the One Church Model is that it would make it impossible for gays and lesbians to receive sound pastoral care across United Methodism. Christians who experience same sex attraction rightly seek their church’s guidance on how to live faithfully as followers of Jesus Christ. Or, to put it in Wesleyan language, they want to know what “holiness of heart and life” looks like for them. The “One Church Model” suggests that divergent understandings of marriage would exist at different levels of United Methodism. This would mean that people who moved from one UMC to another might experience whiplash in the beliefs about marriage and the pastoral care they received as a result of those beliefs. The language from the press release suggests that it would be possible, for example, for decisions about same sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” to be made at the Annual Conference level of United Methodist polity. How, exactly, would it work when a United Methodist moves from an Annual Conference that has voted to officiate same sex marriages and has been legitimately married in a local church in that context to an Annual Conference that has voted to reaffirm the current United Methodist understanding of marriage? And how would the opposite scenario work? Would the gay Christian who chooses to embrace celibacy as a result of the ministry of a church that does not affirm gay marriage need to be convinced that his or her beliefs about marriage and sexuality were wrong when they moved to an Annual Conference that affirms gay marriage? Would they be able to be supported and affirmed in their own convictions?
These scenarios are deeply problematic for both pastoral care and church teaching. A church that were to adopt such an approach as its considered position would be offering such a confused and damaging witness to gay and lesbian Christians on the church’s understanding of marriage that it would be engaged in a kind of ecclesial malpractice.
The proposal that same sex marriage is a matter of contextualization is ultimately an argument that God’s best for you is dependent on where you live. If you live in a part of United Methodism where the majority affirms same sex marriage, then same sex marriage is God’s best for you. If you live in a part of United Methodism where the majority affirms the traditional understanding that marriage is between one man and one woman, then God’s best for you cannot include same sex marriage. This possibility is only even potentially intellectually satisfying if we are entirely focused on ourselves and doing whatever is necessary to fight for the survival of an institution. It is unsatisfying intellectually as soon as we turn from looking at ourselves and looking instead to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
If the Council of Bishops wants to move the “One Church Model” forward, they need to offer United Methodists theologically sound reasons for why the church ought to view human sexuality as a contextual matter and not a matter of basic Christian faith and practice.
Another concern with proposals like the “One Church Model” is that they put the burden firmly on the individual to do their own work to figure out which kind of United Methodist Church one is considering, since there would no longer be consistent standards across United Methodism regarding Christian marriage. Would churches be required to clearly advertise their position on same sex marriage on their website and in their bulletin so first-time visitors would be spared the potential embarrassment of incorrect assumptions about the views of a particular local church? How would local churches be prepared and equipped to explain to laity the rationale for inconsistent views of marriage existing within one denomination?
One potential response to what I’m arguing is that this level of incoherence already exists in United Methodism. Many Bishops, Annual Conferences, pastors, and local churches refuse to abide by the polity of their own church. How is this different?
This is the very problem the Commission on a Way Forward is meant to resolve. The refusal to enforce The United Methodist Church’s teaching on marriage has been devastating to the unity of United Methodism. On Wesley’s understanding of schism, these actions are by definition schismatic (see Wesley’s sermon “On Schism”). But as problematic as these actions have been, offering an incoherent theology and practice of marriage as a denomination would be even worse. The contemporary UMC does have a consistent position on same sex marriage. The problem currently is a lack of adherence to the polity of the church, not an intentional embrace of an incoherent theology of marriage.
I’ve written elsewhere that on Wesley’s understanding The UMC is already in schism at the present moment due to the division within the church over same sex marriage. I also argued there that Wesley cannot be used in support of a vision of “unity that lacks specificity and conviction regarding God’s intention for Christian marriage.” We cannot preserve unity by sacrificing a commitment to a coherent doctrine and discipline (or beliefs and practice). Relativizing United Methodism’s understanding of Christian marriage based on context will not produce unity and it will result in unacceptable pastoral care for all people created in the image of God.
Becky Bocian said:
Thank you, Dr. Watson, for putting this issue in clearly stated language a layperson can understand. And for defending our cherished values of United Methodism.
Randy Myers said:
I think you hit on something very vital that has been either overlooked or ignored in the process to hold things together; doctrinal coherence. I think that it is only through doctrinal coherence that we can offer pastoral care in the name of the Church (otherwise, there is the therapy of adjustment). For instance, when I have conversation with other clergy there is a general denial of the doctrine of Original Sin or at least a dismissal. We do not seem to have the sense that we live in a fallen world which God has come to redeem and restore.
David Turner said:
Our society is beginning to look like the Old Testament’s understanding that “they were a law unto themselves.” For the Israelites in the time before the Judges, this was not a sustainable position for the nation. For our United Methodist Church, being “a law unto themselves” is not a sustainable position either. Your wisdom on this matter is much appreciated.
Reblogged this on John the United Methodist and commented:
There is good wisdom in this blog post.
Great points indeed. I really like how you put it, especially “The proposal that same sex marriage is a matter of contextualization is ultimately an argument that God’s best for you is dependent on where you live.”
Michael Dallas Brecheen said:
It’s really NOT about “The Methodist” Church….it’s about “THE Church” of which Jesus Christ is supposed to be the HEAD….and having died on the cross to purchase it, has every right to say as He did, “I will build MY Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He didn’t promise to build yours or mine or ours…..Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc….only HIS. He alone is the head….the KING of the KINGDOM of God….and the great issues of Life are HIS to determine….tragically so many “Christians” today have dethroned Him….and as the Book of Judges ends,
“There was NO King…so every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
Agree 100%. I feel that the two sketches are tantamount to worshiping at the feel of Unity rather than the God of Truth, Freedom and Love.
I believe the UMC must draw boundaries in what it considers the boundaries of sexually moral behavior and then let the chips fall where they may. It takes guts and will be painful but any way forward will require both.
As you pointed out, without this clear line different conferences will have different teaching. And what exactly are we to teach our children?
Duane Anders said:
Thanks for your thoughts. but are we not also at using your words… “ecclesial malpractice” or “theological malpractice’ in our wide variety of theologies in the UMC? Our teachings on classic issues run the spectrum. We contextualize the gospel all the time. If you asked what is historic “united Methodism” it would an be interesting conversation. We are not of one mind about many things. Thanks for you thoughts.
Linda A. Richard said:
As I understand the One Church model being proposed by the COWF and the COB, decisions regarding the stance of each congregation would not be limited to affirming the stance chosen by the annual conference in regard to ordaining homosexual persons. I believe that beyond the annual conference decisions in that regard, individual congregations and clergy could decide for themselves whether or not to allow same sex marriages or accept an openly Gay/Lesbian Pastor. So it might be possible for an individual moving between Conferences to find a UMC which fits his/her understanding of the issues. For instance, there probably would be both traditional and progressive congregation, as well as those who may be Centrist.
Alex Knight said:
The One Church model simply affirms the current environment of the UMC where some Jurisdictions and some Annual Conferences choose to ignor the provisions of the Book of Discipline. Everybody just does what seems right in their own eyes. Not saying the Way Forward didn’t earnestly try, but this is so sad if it is the best they thought they could discern from the Holy Spirit.
Kevin Watson said:
A few quick responses: The intention of this post is not to argue that nothing is appropriately regarded as a matter of contextualization. My intent was to outline why Christian marriage cannot be included in that category.
I agree that the brief sketch of the One Church Model includes the possibility that these decisions could be decided at the local church level and so someone could transfer from one Annual Conference to another and hope to find a church that preserves consistency from one physical location to the next. I also think the wording suggests that decisions could be made at the Annual Conference level in a way that would be binding on the entire Annual Conference. My sense is that this is why it is a sketch at this stage and that level of detail would need to be worked out. I discuss why I see making decisions at the level of Annual Conferences problematic. I think these decisions being made from one local church to another would be just as problematic, perhaps worse, for some of the reasons given above.
Finally, I want to reiterate that I am convinced that the people serving on the Commission on a Way Forward have done the best that they were able to do in extremely difficult circumstances. The purpose of this post is not to impugn the motives of the Commission. It is to bring to the forefront concerns I have about seeing Christian marriage as something that would appropriately fit within a contextualization approach.
Donald Cramer said:
The UMC has been sliding down this path for over 40 years and I see no end especially with the political divide that has occurred. I pray that we can resolve these issues and remain true to God. A Church is worthless if it does not follow what the scripture mandates, and that is the hard part. Look to the book of Revelation and tell me what Church is your’s.
James Wilson said:
If the leadership of the UMC had handled this properly it would have been over years ago. They are as guilty as the people committing the violations.
Scott Hearn said:
Duane Anders, “historic Methodism” is stated in the Articles of Religion found here: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-articles-of-religion-of-the-methodist-church. But I would agree,we are unfortunately no longer of one mind on these things
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Once Pandora’s box is open, I guess many different changes can be made, not just on marriage. For instance, ordination requirements for pastors probably would be different so they can’t move to other areas easily. What about basic Methodist beliefs like baptism? Who is to stop them? The Council of Bishops isn’t able to enforce the Book of Discipline now.
Paige Keithly said:
It is all about authority.
Charles Leonard said:
First of all, “confusing” and “damaging” are products of having to deal with the human sexuality issue outside traditional views of scripture and our current doctrine. Perhaps people wanting the non-traditional approach would need to consider and ultimately align with their appropriate conference or local church. This would at least provide opportunity as well as minimize further division at both the conference and local church levels.
Secondly, bi-laws written as part of local church mission or vision statements can be made clearly visible. This should help provide necessary clarity and can easily referenced as needed.
I believe the traditional view is most revered, accepted and practiced. I find it sad and disappointing that secular humanism is taking some precedence in order to remain united. Accepting people initially as they are is the gospel. But endorsing their hurts, hangups and lifestyles does not promote growth and is not
not part of the journey. In fact, it obviously is “confusing” and “damaging”.
Maggie Thorp said:
These statements are highly confusing and disturbing:
“The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.”
The “witness” is not one of Methodism (or any other denomination), but of Jesus.
“The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.”
This statement essentially says it’s all about man’s personal agenda.
How has church leadership gone so far astray from truth? It doesn’t take a theologian to see the fallacy in these statements and the dangers that lurk ahead under this type of leadership.
I find it amazing that so many are concerned about the bedroom behaviors of others.
How about taking the log from your own eyes before attempting to take the speck out of others?
Kevin Watson said:
The implication of your amazement that people are “concerned about the bedroom behavior of others” seems to me to be that sexual ethics are entirely a private matter of personal judgment. While that view accurately reflects the assumptions of much of Western cultural consciousness, it is at odds with the assumptions of Scripture, which repeatedly lift up sexual ethics as a concern for Christian discipleship. Sin and holiness both impact others for ill or for good.
I do not understand how your reference to Matthew 7:1-5 applies to this post, which is about the importance of moral teaching that has integrity and consistency across The UMC. Matthew 7:1-5 seems both tangential to the post and contradicts the first part of your own comment.
Pretty sure Jesus started it. Yes, God seems very concerned with our sexual behavior and its ramifications. Take it up with him.
Reblogged this on Filled with Creatures and commented:
When I heard our bishop announce the One Church plan at Annual Conference I had concerns about how well it would indeed achieve unity. Doctor Watson raises questions about pastoral care that did not occur to me.
I feel Dr. Watson sets up a “straw person argument.” Same sex couples aren’t likely to change from a more liberal UMC to a more Traditionalist UMC. There simply is no longer “brand loyalty” to any denomination. Already people tend to settle in a congregation with which they feel most comfortable; without necessarily staying with one denomination. For example, many people raised in the UMC in Illinois feel more comfortable in an ELCA congregation if they move to Wisconsin. I have two sisters in-law. One was raised in the UMC- but she and her husband became Lutheran while living in Wisconsin. My other sister-in-law was raised as Lutheran-but she and her husband are active in the UMC in Texas. Context prevails and may cross denominational lines!
Matthew Johnson said:
If you’re going to accuse Dr. Watson of making a straw-man argument, you’re going to have to present an argument in support of your claim. The words that followed your accusation suggest you either didn’t read the piece or you didn’t understand it. It was a trail of non sequiturs which lead one to believe that you think denominations don’t matter and should disappear.
Wow. And my reply was so simple and to the point! I was merely reflecting on the point that Dr. Watson said he was concerned that it would be confusing for a gay couple to go to different United Methodist Churches who had different beliefs regarding same sex marriage and homosexuality. So no, I wasn’t tackling the whole article. There already is a big difference among United Methodist Churches when it comes to these issues. And I am reflecting that after 36 year in the ministry I often find that people who move from one community to another don’t necessarily stay with one particular denomination. As I said my answer was simple and maybe you were trying to make it cover more than I meant to cover.