Should We Agree To Disagree? Focus 7

The issue that has divided us for over 40 years is front and center once again. And no doubt the debate regarding the practice of homosexuality will be as heartfelt and as emotional as it has been in the past.

Though other issues such as restructuring, vital congregations, and reaching young adults are essential for our future, none of those issues carries the possibility of splitting the denomination. Only the issue of homosexuality has that potential—will we ordain and appoint practicing homosexual clergy and marry same-sex couples? Homosexuality is not the most important issue before the church, but it is the most divisive and the one that can rip apart The United Methodist Church, just as it has The United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and, most recently, The Presbyterian Church USA.

Some are proposing that we avoid this kind of damage to The United Methodist Church by adopting one of two “compromise” positions. At our last General Conference there was a movement simply to “agree to disagree.” This position would have us admit that we are of divided mind regarding homosexual practice and would have us make no definitive statement regarding the practice of homosexuality until we receive “further light.”

While appealing to some, this “compromise” is ultimately unhelpful. When a 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.

But when the issue is one of principle and when it involves the clear teaching of Scripture, we cannot take the easy way out and claim that we do not know what we believe without injuring our personal integrity and our corporate witness. And to be honest, everyone knows that removing the clear statement we currently have in the Discipline would not resolve the issue. It is only a first step by those whose ultimate intention is to change the church’s position. And that’s hardly a true compromise.

When the “agree-to-disagree compromise” was defeated in Fort Worth and the historic position of the church was reaffirmed, the charge against those who supported the church’s stance was, “You’re dishonest. We are of divided mind. Why won’t you even allow us to state that we differ?”

It’s a good question. And there’s a very good answer. 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 have agreed to disagree.

Many United Methodists were surprised to discover that our denomination has a position on healthcare that supports the government providing universal coverage. 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. Some want us to take a stand against all abortions. Others want us to liberalize our position. Should we have no statement other than “we aren’t sure what we believe about abortion”?

Our differences have not kept us from making pronouncements in the Book of Discipline regarding collective bargaining, consumption, civil disobedience, and the death penalty. None of those positions passed with 100 percent agreement at General Conference, but none of our positions in the Book of Discipline on those issues begins, “We are of divided mind.”

The other “compromise” that may come before General Conference is an “Annual Conference” option. This approach would grant each Conference the autonomy to decide its own policies regarding ordination of practicing homosexual clergy, as well as performing same-sex marriages.

Again, though perhaps well intended, such a solution would be disastrous for the health of our church. We are a connectional body — and we are grateful and even proud of that reality. One of the reasons we are United Methodists is because we believe that a divided church is less than what Christ desires and prayed for in John 17. In the past we have bemoaned the fragmented nature of the Church Universal and have been dismayed that there are so many “independent” congregations that are autonomous and accountable to no body greater than themselves.

Now, some are trying to make us United Methodists what we have never been to solve a matter of biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical accountability. Annual Conferences and individual churches are not autonomous when it comes to paying apportionments, infant baptism, or women’s ordination — and they shouldn’t be. It means something to be United Methodist. And we cannot violate our very nature to solve a problem simply because we want it to go away.

The autonomous solution would create chaos. Could an elder ordained in one Annual Conference be denied appointment in another Conference because the second Conference has different ordination standards?

The autonomous solution would ultimately destroy our unity. This would be the first step toward a balkanization of the church that would cause us to drift further apart as time passes. This compromise intended to “keep us together” would insure, over time, just the opposite.

The autonomous solution would grant exemptions from church standards. Once exemptions are granted in one area, it will be very difficult to maintain any kind of covenant of mutual accountability within the church.

Compromising on this issue will do great harm to the church in Africa. Our brothers and sisters tell us that any change would ruin their witness and compromise the moral authority of the church.

No promise of ecclesiastical peace and unity can justify these distortions of the church’s theology and polity.

We may remain a divided church on the practice of homosexuality for some time to come. That’s a hard place to be. But our way out is not an easy solution that compromises our integrity by saying we don’t know what we believe or dismantles our connectional unity.

Our way forward is to listen to each other respectfully, to remain open to God, to vote our conscience, and to stay committed to each other and to the process of holy conferencing.

–By Rob Renfroe, president and publisher of Good News.