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