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.