A Letter to my United Methodist Friends

[I recently came across this piece I wrote on February 26, 2015, over a year before the 2016 General Conference established the Commission on the Way Forward, and four years to the day before the Special General Conference decision on human sexuality. I’d say the same thing today. ]

A Letter to my UM Friends

A while ago I approached some United Methodist friends, who are leaders in the movement to change the Book of Discipline’s stance on sexuality. I asked each one a series of questions, and simply listened. After processing what they told me, this is my response.

Thank you for taking the time to patiently answer my questions about your stance regarding sexuality and the United Methodist Church. I knew where you stood on the issue, but I wanted to be sure I understood why you hold the position you do.

I have thought a lot about what you told me, and I considered a few options as to how I might respond.

I first considered writing a rebuttal that articulated my position. I believe it to be God-honoring, grace-laced, theologically coherent and the best hope for the future of our church. But there is no point in that. It wouldn’t change your mind, and I am not anxious to be defined by what I’m against.

Another response option was to identify and elaborate on all the points on which we agree. There are many. But again, that would accomplish little. Our points of agreement will not eliminate the implications of the difference in our perspectives.

Not responding didn’t feel right, either.

So in the end, I have decided to share with you the conclusion I reached after thinking about what you told me: I count you as brothers and sisters in Christ, but I doubt we will be part of the same denomination some years from now. And that is OK. Really it is.

Let me explain.

The UMC’s conversations about sexuality are greatly complicated by our confusing Christian unity with denominational unity and identity. Because we do not distinguish between the two, we have a very hard time drawing lines appropriately.

Bishop and former seminary professor Scott Jones teaches that denominational unity is a by-product of three elements: our doctrine, our discipline and our mission.

            1. Doctrine

            Perhaps Christian unity simply depends on simply affirming that “Jesus is Lord.” But denominational unity and identity requires more.

The issue of homosexuality is often difficult for people to work through because each side’s position is a natural outgrowth of their core theology, and those theologies differ. Since we start from different assumptions, we arrive at different conclusions.

As I listened to your answers to my questions, I realized that we differed significantly in our understanding of the nature of sin, redemption, biblical authority and of the Gospel.

These are not small matters.

Christians do not have to believe alike about all things, but unity within a denomination does require certain amount of shared doctrinal understanding. As United Methodists we have long sought to avoid defining essential doctrine, and the result is that we cannot address an issue of sexuality with one mind.

            2. Discipline

            Members of a functional denomination share agreement on polity and on the basics of how to carry out ministry. In contrast, many members of our church do not agree on the validity of our Book of Discipline.

To put it bluntly: if we can’t agree on whom we will marry or whom should be ordained, are we really one denomination?

            3. Mission

Our mission as currently practiced is not a source of division, but neither is it a source of unique identity or unity.

The stated mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That is a broad statement that most Christian churches could agree on; it is not uniquely United Methodist.

The word “mission” as used by most United Methodists translates as social action and public service. Again, there is nothing wrong with these things, but it does not set us apart from many other Christian bodies who do the same things.

So, the issue of homosexuality is rocking our church because we do not have enough unity of doctrine, discipline or mission to allow us to define a shared United Methodist identity.

The result is that we get confused because some Christians do not agree with our stance on sexuality, and we assume the task is to figure out a way for all to live under the UM umbrella. That is not possible, desirable or even consistent with our practice in other areas.

For example, last year at a clergy retreat, our Bishop shared that our Board of Ordained Ministry turned down a candidate because he didn’t believe in baptizing infants, only those who could profess faith for themselves. The Bishop emphasized that this was not the theology of the United Methodist Church, and that no one could be ordained by us while holding to that view.

My colleagues in the room were not shocked or disturbed by the Bishop’s statement. No one stood to argue that this is a justice issue and that there should be “a seat at the table” for everyone, regardless of their stance on baptismal procedures. No one stood to protest that we were violating the core value of inclusion, or that we were ignoring this man’s gifts for ministry. 

The reason no one protested is because everyone accepts the fact that United Methodist theology leads us to baptize infants, and that those who believe in baptizing only adults should join the Baptist Church.

Everyone in the room knew that we are not saying that those who don’t baptize infants are not Christians, we are simply saying they are not United Methodists. And that is fine. Christians can disagree with one another about baptismal theology and still be part of the Body of Christ; they just might not be part of the same denomination.

Likewise, Christians may disagree on whether non-celibate homosexuals can be pastors, but they may not be able to be part of the same denomination.

Denominations are subsets of the universal body of Christ, and those subsets are defined by drawing lines. That definition creates a denominational identity and allows people to recognize where they belong.

When we draw lines around insignificant matters, we become divisive. But both sides today agree that the issue of sexuality is not insignificant because our disagreement stems from core doctrinal and disciplinary differences.

We cannot bring denominational unity by avoiding definition. We will not become more unified by declaring that each church or Conference or Jurisdiction will make their own determination on ordination and marriage, because that doesn’t solve the root problem of our differences: the doctrine or discipline which leads to unity. (And it merely produces many smaller-scale divisions, as those within each conference or jurisdiction decide what to do when their group decides in a direction they cannot support.) To say “we are not of one mind” may be self-evident, but it will not help us function as a denomination.

Attempting to avoid drawing a line will cause our denominational identity to dissolve into a watered-down version of universal Christian unity.

Instead, let us celebrate both the unity of all Christians and the uniqueness of individual denominational groups.

The reason I earlier said it is OK if we do not belong to the same denomination is that ten thousand years from now, it won’t matter to which denomination we belonged.

In the end, I wonder if we care a lot more about preserving the current structure of the United Methodist Church than God does.

Of course, God infinitely cares about people called United Methodists, but I’m just not sure God cares as much about the structure called United Methodism.

Heck, not even John Wesley cared whether Methodism would continue to exist.

“I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”