Editorial: Compromising positions

By Rob Renfroe

It’s that time again. In just a couple of months we will have elected delegates to General Conference. And caucus groups are meeting all over the Connection. Some are making lists of the candidates they will support and want other Annual Conference delegates to support. Others are making lists while denying that they’re doing so. And still others claim the moral high ground and condemn those who organize to get others elected—as if there is something immoral, non-Methodist, or un-American about working to send persons to General Conference who share their views, their values, and their vision for the church.

There are a host of issues that our General Conference delegates will address. And many of them will be critically important to the life and witness of the United Methodist Church.

• Will we agree that our General Boards exist to support the local church and consequently reallocate resources so that less go to the Boards and more stay with individual congregations where ministry really happens?

• Will the Call to Action report lead to new structures that empower the local church or will we miss an opportunity for needed change?

• Will we become serious about providing funding for the church in the two-thirds, developing world where the Gospel is spreading rapidly and where theological training is desperately needed?

• Will we speak on behalf of the poor and will we take seriously our commission to evangelize the nations and make disciples of Jesus Christ?

• Will we find a way to hold not only pastors, but also denominational leaders and Bishops accountable for poor performance and unfaithfulness to the Book of Discipline?

These issues and others must be addressed in Tampa if the UM Church is to move forward in a powerful way. But none of those issues has the potential of splitting the denomination. Only one does. And that is what we decide regarding the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexuals and same-sex marriage. Not the most important issues before the church—but the most divisive and the ones that can devastate the UM Church just as it has the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church in the U.S., the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and as it is on the verge of doing with the Presbyterian Church USA.

At our last General Conference there was a strong movement to adopt a “compromise” position. The motion came before the assembly to “agree to disagree.” This position would have us admit that we are of divided mind regarding homosexual practice and that we would make no definitive statement until we received further light.

I can understand the appeal of this wrong-headed approach. We all want to be done with this issue. When we see a world that is spiritually lost, billions living in material poverty, and Christians more and more persecuted for their faith all around the globe, many of us wonder why so much time and energy and pain must be spent on this one issue—especially since we have addressed it with the same consistent response for over 40 years.

Sometimes a compromise is the best solution. When the matter is pragmatic and little more, compromise can be the right option to take. Part of growing up is realizing that you can’t and don’t need to get your way all the time. And when you look at a federal government that is as dysfunctional as the one we have now, an understandable reaction is to ask why our elected leaders cannot exhibit the maturity required to work together and come up with mutually agreed-upon solutions for the very real problems before us. Sometimes a compromise is the best road to travel.

But not always. One of my pastoral counseling professors in seminary said sometimes a compromise is no better than a husband who wants to go to Cape Cod for a vacation and a wife wanting to go to San Diego. So they compromise and end up in Amarillo, Texas.

When the agree-to-disagree compromise position was defeated in Fort Worth and our traditional position that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to Christian teaching was reaffirmed, the charge against those of us who supported the church’s stance was, “You’re dishonest. You won’t even allow us to state our differences. We are of divided mind. Why won’t you even permit us to admit our differences?”

It’s a good question. And there’s a very good response. We United Methodists are divided on practically every issue. But in none of our other statements on matters theological, moral, or cultural do we state that we don’t know what we believe, so we have nothing to say other than we’re uncertain what’s right.

Many United Methodists were surprised to discover that the UM Church had a position on healthcare that supports the government providing healthcare for all. Not only surprised to discover that we had a position, they were adamant that they disagreed with it. Will those wanting us to adopt the “agree to disagree” position on homosexuality be consistent and ask the General Conference to remove our stance on healthcare and replace it with “we are of divided mind and are waiting for God to give us additional light before we take a position”?

We are divided on the church’s position regarding abortion. Currently, United Methodism opposes gender-selection, birth control, and late-term abortions. Some want us to take a stand against all abortions. Others want us to make clear that the only time an abortion might be acceptable is when the physical life of the mother is at stake. Others want us to liberalize our position so that any abortion a woman desires is accepted as moral. Should we have no position other than “we don’t really know what we believe about abortion”?

We are divided regarding war. None of us is for war, but some of us are able to hold a well-respected position known as the just-war theory—there are times, sadly, when physical force is acceptable to protect the lives and the freedom of persons being attacked by evil powers. Others of us, just as sincere and theological, are pacifists. Our differences have not kept our Bishops from issuing a statement on war. Nor have our differences kept us from making pronouncements in the Book of Discipline regarding collective bargaining, consumption, civil disobedience, and the death penalty. I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that none of those positions passed with 100 percent agreement at General Conference, and I’m sure it doesn’t surprise you that none of our positions in the Book of Discipline on those issues begins, “We are of divided mind.”

So, is it really dishonest to take a position on the practice of homosexuality that does not state that United Methodists hold different views regarding this controversial topic (at least until we receive “further light”—are those who want to liberalize our position really waiting on God to have another book of the Bible written and included in the canon that denies and overturns every other reference in the Scriptures)?

Of course, it’s not dishonest to state our position on homosexual practice without first adding the disclaimer that United Methodists hold differing views—unless it’s dishonest not to begin every position statement in the Discipline with the admission that we are lacking unity and are not in full agreement.

What is dishonest is compromising the witness of the Scriptures, not because they aren’t clear and consistent on the topic (they are), but simply because the message of the Bible is offensive to the current culture. What is dishonest is for those who claim all they want is for the church to agree to disagree, when that’s not what is wanted at all. This “middle ground position” is nothing more than a ploy to move us one step away from the biblical position and one step closer to affirming the position that homosexuality is just as much a gift from God as heterosexuality and should be celebrated as such.

As our Annual Conferences determine whom to send to General Conference, we need to select delegates who have the vision and the courage to handle the most important issues before the church—empowering local congregations and the church in Africa and the rest of the two-thirds world to be effective in ministry, for example.

But we must also ask potential delegates about the one issue that can divide and destroy the church we love. And the question to ask is not the one we have asked in the past: “Will you vote to change the church’s position and accept homosexual practice and active gay clergy?” The question to ask is, “Will you be principled enough not to compromise the Word of God under the guise of compassion and generosity of spirit—will you refuse to be seduced by a position that claims to be the radical center but is only radical because it is willing to deny what the Bible clearly teaches: all persons are loved by God and must be loved by the church, but not all practices are acceptable.”

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.