‘Third Way’ or ‘Third Rail’?

The “third rail” is the electrified rail that runs in the middle between train tracks of electric trains. Because it carries a high current, touching that third rail is almost always fatal. So the “third rail” has often been used in politics as an analogy for addressing an issue that could bring about political ruin.

A recently proposed “Third Way” by the Connectional Table (CT), United Methodism’s general church council, could prove to be just as ruinous for the denomination, if it is enacted at the 2016 General Conference in Portland. The “Third Way” purports to be a middle ground between maintaining the current position of the church on marriage and homosexuality on the one hand, and completely endorsing same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals on the other. But like the electrified rail running between the tracks, the “Third Way” carries a dangerous current.

At its May meeting, the CT endorsed legislation that would:

* Redefine marriage as “monogamous” but not “heterosexual,” and replace “a man and a woman” with “two people” (while acknowledging that marriage is “traditionally between one man and one woman”).

* Make the statement that “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” a “historical” position, implying that it is no longer the case.

* Give to each annual conference the authority to determine whether or not to ordain a self-avowed practicing homosexual to ministry, deleting “being a self-avowed practicing homosexual” as a clergy from the chargeable offenses.

* Permits clergy to “celebrate marriages between two persons committed to one another” and deletes the prohibition against celebrating a homosexual union or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.

The only aspect of the current position of the church that would remain unchanged is the stipulation that annual conference or general church apportionments could not be used to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or given to any gay caucus or group.

The rationale behind the proposal, according to the CT, is that it would “keep everyone at the table,” while allowing the exercise of individual conscience. The group felt that “this approach provides better inclusion for our LGBTQ brothers and sisters” and “insures an allowance for [ministry in a cultural] context.” They also believe that it “best maintains the unity of the church.”

Matthew "Theo" Williams of Liberia, representing the West Africa Central Conference, joins in the small-group discussion at the Connectional Table's May 18 meeting in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

Matthew “Theo” Williams of Liberia, representing the West Africa Central Conference, joins in the small-group discussion at the Connectional Table’s May 18 meeting in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.

The CT proposal is very similar to “A Way Forward” proposed in 2014 by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter, which sought to give congregations and annual conferences a “local option” to “adapt” the requirements of the Book of Disciplineto their particular ministry context. However, the CT proposal is even more far-reaching than “A Way Forward.”

Whereas, Hamilton/Slaughter would leave the current stance in the Book of Discipline the same, but allow churches and conferences to adapt it, the CT proposal actually changes the stance of the church by relegating our current understanding of homosexuality to the historical past. While “A Way Forward” would require a local church to vote by a two-thirds majority to approve their pastor to perform same-sex weddings, the CT proposal would leave that decision entirely up to the pastor, eliminating lay input entirely.

Hamilton/Slaughter would require a two-thirds majority vote by an annual conference to ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals, but the CT proposal requires only a simple majority. “A Way Forward” would allow local churches to specify whether or not they would be willing to receive a self-avowed practicing homosexual person as their pastor, but the CT proposal leaves that decision up to the annual conference and the bishop. Under the CT proposal, a local church could be forced to accept a self-avowed practicing homosexual pastor, whether the church agreed or not.

Unraveling the Connection

The constant drumbeat of United Methodist clergy across the United States who are performing same-sex weddings in defiance of the Discipline represents the unraveling of our United Methodist connection. The connection was formed in 1744 in the first “conference” that John Wesley initiated with ministers who were “in connection” with him. Every since that first conference, the “connection” has meant a relationship of loyalty, first with Mr. Wesley and then with the other members of the conference, as well as an agreement on “What to teach. How to teach. What to do? i.e., doctrine, discipline, and practice” (Works of John Wesley, Vol. 10, p. 120).

As Methodism has evolved over the past 270 years, the General Conference has become the body to which we are pledged to be loyal and which is the only body that can speak officially for The United Methodist Church. As Dr. David F. Watson, dean of United Theological Seminary, has pointed out, “many clergy, and even some bishops, have lost faith (if they ever had it) in the General Conference’s ability to arrive at proper moral judgments on behalf of the church. This has been made abundantly clear by acts of ecclesial disobedience in the church and the refusal of judicatory bodies to hold accountable those who commit these acts. If we still believed that the General Conference could make proper moral judgments on behalf of the church, we wouldn’t be trying to find ways to undercut its decision-making authority or eliminate it altogether.”

Up until now, that “lost faith” in General Conference has been expressed informally, primarily by the actions of disobedient clergy and bishops, along with maneuvers to circumvent the authority of church discipline. The CT proposal, however, enshrines this loss of faith by taking away the issue of marriage and homosexuality from General Conference discernment altogether. No more can the highest representative body of the church speak to this matter in a unifying way. Instead, each pastor, each congregation, and each annual conference is empowered to do “what is right in their own eyes.”

Not only does the CT proposal ignore scriptural teaching on human sexuality, it eliminates in a more official way the central element of United Methodism, namely our connectionalism. The practical outworking of this is that a person who is ordained in one annual conference might not meet the qualifications for ministry in another annual conference. A pastor who is fit to serve one congregation would not be fit to serve another congregation, unless the congregation was forced to accept him/her. Some local churches would now be in the position of being unable to accept the actions of their annual conference. (There have always been differences of opinion about moral and ethical teaching, but now such differences would be institutionally sanctioned and even promoted.) Separate and very different theological foundations would be officially recognized and allowed to grow in different annual conferences. Suspicion and disconnection would replace the connectedness that was designed to hold United Methodists together.

‘Fighting House to House’

“If the CT Plan ends the fighting at General Conference, it would only signal the beginning of combat operations at the local and annual conference levels,” observed the Rev. Chris Ritter, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Geneseo, Illinois. “There, the many facets of our connectional covenant could become weaponized in the struggle over which vision of the Christian life will be in force. This battle will be most intense in moderate conferences [and congregations] where opinion is closely divided. Votes at the annual conference might go back and forth, putting lives and ministries in limbo.”

Ritter mentioned the disempowerment of laity under the CT proposal. “No mention of the concerns of laity is offered in the CT plan. … Neither are laity empowered to reject a practicing homosexual as pastor under this plan.”

Ritter also observed, “I remain unconvinced that individual annual conferences could, under the plan, effectively prohibit non-celibate homosexual clergy. … I remain skeptical that an annual conference could effectively exclude someone from ministry based on a category of lifestyle without the weight of the Book of Discipline behind them.”

The battle will take its toll on evangelical and traditionalist clergy, who will find it difficult to maintain a conscientious objection to same-sex practices. “Will it still be easy to maintain one’s position against same-sex marriage when the District superintendent or bishop is married to someone of the same gender?” Ritter wrote. “If the progressive view reaches a tipping point in a conference, the power to make pastoral appointments can be used to isolate or eliminate pockets of resistance. … Pastors who cannot, due to issues of conscience, conduct a same-sex wedding will be forced to defend that decision alone against the rising tide of cultural acceptance.”

Impact on the Global Church

“Under the CT Plan, there will be, in very short order, openly practicing homosexual superintendents and bishops in the UMC. Imagine, through the eyes of our African brothers and sisters, the spectacle of a bishop in a same-sex marriage presiding over the 2028 United Methodist General Conference in Zimbabwe,” Ritter said. In a continent where relentless, violent pressure from radical Muslims jeopardizes the ministries, property, and lives of African Christians, to be part of a denomination that affirms or even allows same-sex behaviors would carry an extremely grave risk. Indeed, the enactment of the CT proposal might well force the African central conferences to withdraw from The United Methodist Church. In the name of inclusiveness, we could be excluding 40 percent of our current members.

This geographical and cultural chasm is played out in a smaller way within annual conferences. “There is no mechanism, in the CT Plan, for individual clergy and congregations to opt away from the direction of their annual conference in the acceptance (or rejection) of clergy in same-sex marriages,” Ritter wrote. “The tyranny of geography that we currently see in our U.S. church would continue to be in effect,” and even grow under the CT proposal.


The CT proposal seeks to present itself as a compromise. In a compromise, usually each side gets some, but not all, of what it wants. With the CT proposal, progressives get much of what they want – the ability to perform same-sex weddings and the option of ordaining self-avowed practicing homosexuals. Evangelicals and traditionalists, however, only get to say that our position used to be (“historically”) the position of the church.

“Progressives will get much of what they want, while traditionalists will be expected to live with a church that promotes what they believe to be contrary to God’s will,” said Good News president Rob Renfroe. “We also know that these issues will be brought up year after year in our annual conferences until the progressives win. This is not a compromise. This is a strategy for progressives to one day control the church.”

The language of “battle” may be an unfortunate way to describe what is happening within United Methodism, but it is reality. There is a zero-sum game being waged by two mutually exclusive worldviews within the church. There is no “middle way.” The CT proposal would move the church decisively toward the wholesale affirmation of same-sex behavior and would potentially precipitate the very division that the CT seeks to prevent.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News. 


  1. Sonja LeVan says

    This is one way to lose all of the Evangelic United Methodists…If this voted for in 2016, I will push for our Church to leave the Denomination and go to Court to get our Church and also invite other Churches in our Conference to do the same!

  2. Steve Zinser says

    There is only one agreement that makes sense. The longer it is put off, the more the unnatural marriage caucus will control the debate. Split. In one form or another, there must be two self-determining bodies where there supposedly used to be one.

  3. Mary Anderson says

    Why should the Methodist Church change what they know if the truth, based on the Word of God, to accomodate those who believe differently than what God’s word says. Just because they do not accept HIS word does not make it not true. So would we be doing anyone a favor by changing the wording in the discipline to accomodate the LGBT, or would we just be sending them straight to hell by not taking a stand and making them decide what they actually believe-their feelings or the Word of God? Should the Methodist Church change their discipline I will have to leave this denomination, as I refuse to sit under a denomination that does not stand on the Word of God, but choose to keep from hurting others feelings, would change what they believe and instead of teaching them truth, send them straight to hell!

  4. Rick Spell says

    I agree completely. This is not a middle way at all. The central difference that divides us is opposing views of the inspiration of Scripture. If you believe (as many of us do) that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, you must take seriously the prohibitions against homosexual behavior. If you believe that Scripture is no more inspired than other great human works, it is logical that you could believe that this is a human rights issue and not a moral one. I am deeply concerned about the future of the United Methodist Church. The issues of gay marriage and ordination may be only the tip of the iceberg. What else will they want to legalize and sanctify?

  5. Dave Nuckols says

    I’d like to understand your argument better, Tom. Specifically where you say “There is a zero-sum game being waged by two mutually exclusive worldviews within the church. There is no ‘middle way’.”. I remain mentally blocked by your assertion of “worldviews”.

    1) please define “worldview”
    2) please explain how the concept “worldview” relates to forming of two and only two significant parties to this debate (why is there no middle way worldview?)
    3) please describe your understanding of each of these two opposing world views.

    I feel that the more-or-less LEFT and the more-or-less RIGHT often talk past each other for a lack of mutual understanding. And seems to me there is a more-or-less MIDDLE view which both ends of the spectrum tend to discount. I am sensing that my not understanding your meaning (and the importance you attrach to it) of this “worldview concept” is a barrier to my understanding your position.

    Thanks in advance for explaining those three numbered point. You brother in Christ, Dave.

    • I can’t speak for Tom, but I think I’ve already answered Dave’s questions about incompatible worldviews in a four-part blog series published earlier this year: http://karenbooth.goodnewsmag.org/welcome-to-babel-part-1/, http://karenbooth.goodnewsmag.org/welcome-to-babel-part-2/, http://karenbooth.goodnewsmag.org/welcome-to-babel-part-3/, and http://karenbooth.goodnewsmag.org/welcome-to-babel-part-4/.

      • Dave Nuckols says

        Thanks, Karen, for those links. I would appreciate further clarification from you and/or Tom. Those links were helpful in explaining your (and I trust Tom’s) personal worldview inasmuch as I can now list a set of key values, belief and/or assumptions underpinning it. So this helps me under #3a as relates to your own worldview as applied generally and also specifically to same-sex marriage. Thank you. But I remain at a loss for #3b (i.e., your understanding of the other singular opposing worldview) because what you describe for your opponents doesn’t correspond to my experience of many who hold the LGBTQ-affirming view supporting same-sex marriage.

        I still feel it would help in our discussion if you’d provide a succinct definition of “worldview” as a categorical term. This goes back to question #1, seeking to understand the term itself.

        I suppose that our sticking point will remain question #2 where Tom has posited that we have two and only two irreconcilable worldviews. I do not think you or Tom have adequately explained the worldview(s) of your opponents in the marriage debate. You’ve criticized them (e.g., calling them cultural relativists etc.) but you’ve not shown that you understand them in their own terms (i.e., how they understand themselves, as Christians, etc.) and I feel like that is one cause of our disconnect. If you can answer my question #1, then we can have a better discussion of #2 and #3b.

        I do not think we face a struggle between just two worldviews. I believe there are a range of views across our connection and even saying “progressive, moderate, traditional” does not do justice to the range. It strikes me, that across the whole spectrum, we find both supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage. And even within the “traditional/evangelical” community, there are some evangelicals with high view of scriptural authority whose exegesis (not eisegesis) leads them to support same-sex marriage.

        Now clearly we do have a disagreement over the nature of homosexuality and whether it is fundamentally choice behavior vs. fundamentally an immutable characteristic of orientation. But that one assumption is not sufficient basis for a whole clash of worldviews. And not enough to justify schism. LGBTQ-affirming Christians – no matter be they progressive, moderate or evangelical – have much more common ground with non-affirming Christians as it relates to our identity in Christ and to unity in mission to make disciples and transform the world.

        Let us continually strive for mutual understanding. And where we disagree, let us at least understand where and why we disagree to the point where we can give a fair accounting of the other. Currently, my take on Tom’s post is that he’s not comparing two equally developed worldviews but rather he’s comparing his own worldview to a strawman caricature of the other side. But lacking clarity on my previous questions #1 and #2, I’m not sure that’s fair on my part. Thank you for your continued engagement. I look forward to hearing back.

        • David Goudie says


          While I too cannot speak for either Tom or Karen, and their posts have done a better job in many ways than I can, (so I am hoping I am not trying to butt into the conversation). but hoping instead to offer a reply from one who has tried to be somewhat more ‘in the middle before’ but find it almost impossible now.
          And the reason is this; I have heard it argued in the past from colleagues and friends that we should change the Discipline so that it is left up to the individual whether they want to perform same-sex marriages and the like (similar to what the ‘Third Way legislation proposes’) .
          But more recently the argument (it least in my area) has become more louder and ‘hard-line’ saying that it is an injustice to not affirm LBGT”. In fact, I have heard it said that the church itself is in sin and causing sin by their stance. (which if you really think about it really is a logical outcome of that perspective.)
          We can see this clearly in articles written by groups like ‘love prevails’, and ‘MFSA’ as they responds to “the Third Way” . For ultimately those groups themselves have rejected the “third Way’ proposal on the ground that it ‘continues injustice in certain areas’. (The Reconciling Ministry Blog even compares it to a bribe). And therefore the church should repent of its sin.
          The dilemma comes down to contrary and opposing views of sin, (also how we see God’s Word, which others have done a better job than I at explaining. )
          “Traditionalists’ like myself have said that the behavior is declared a sin by God’s Word … and therefore condoning that behavior goes against the scriptures and would be condoning of sin.
          “Progressives” have said that it is not a sin. And we are doing a disservice ‘to LBGTQ poeple’ … and logically they have taken it to it’s natural conclusion … which is that if it is not a sin and the church for many years has “rejected them” …. ‘Justice demands; that it is actually the church who is sinning and the church must be pressed to repent.

          Two opposing directions as to what is sin … causes this to be a major divide … for instead of ‘let’s agree to disagree … and come to some compromise about processes’ … in reality it instead becomes a divide over who indeed is ‘sinning and who needs to repent?’

          For looking at the ‘Third way’ itself as ‘a ‘compromise’ one can induce what ‘either side wants’
          Traditionalists want the discipline to remain where it is and to have us follow it (and God’s Word)
          Progressives (by logical reasoning of what the third way compromises’ )wants the church to repent of its ways and that every pastor should be ‘urged” if not ‘compelled or forced to accept this as ‘ God given identity’ . (again I refer to speeches I have heard, in addition to articles from Love prevails, MFSA and Reconciling Ministries network, so as not to ‘build a straw man argument)

          For in conclusion if the Third way was to be passed, I simply ask “would the debate stop?” Would it suffice the “progressive side?” Or would it increase the debate to say that instead of “let’s agree to disagree’ to now “We must accept it fully or we (as a church) are promoting creating injustice and are sinning”. While ‘Traditionalist’ continue to wonder when did we leave God’s Word as our standard for holiness and determining what is sin?

          • Jay Hollis says

            Thanks for sharing your point of view! This is the first explanation I have seen explain the UMC’s current reality that makes sense. Also, thank you for presenting it in the spirit of love and logic without using emotionally charged language-although, I can understand how both points of view are emotionally charged because both sides believe the other side is sinning and not taking Scripture seriously. I love the UMC and the beauty of its diversity and shared mission of making Disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.

  6. The “Third Rail”, is like the one that Solomon was confronted with by two women over the same child. Also this is also like Nehemiah, when the Priest gave Tobiah, use of a room in the temple. Neh 13:7 ” And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.” Holiness, requires one to be set apart from evil.

  7. Ian McDonald says

    God help us. The connectional table is rushing headlong into disaster. The culture is making disciples of the United Methodist Church for the transformation of the Church into a politically correct gospel of non-offensiveness. We will all have to give an account someday for our actions and words as Pastors, Elders and Bishops. This is not good. This is another sign of the dis-connection between the leadership of the United Methodist Church and the scriptures. All the talk of the United Methodist Church oppressing our LGBT brothers and sisters ignores what the scriptures and God’s created order tells us plainly.

  8. Al Vanderlaan says

    There is no way the word of God can be changed . It has with stood time from Moses to Christ At least 1800 years . Then from Christ till today . Man has tried to change it but if we are bible believing Christians his word can’t be changed . It is voiced in both the old and new testaments . Lev. 18:22 speaks to this in the Old Testament and 1Cor.6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10 in the New Testament . Read from the King James Version .

    I ask myself in light of this “new”theology what would Jesus say ? What would John Westley say ? Man has tried to change the word of God for ever to suite his own beliefs . Satin is behind this deception of the church . Satin attacks us from all major fields , Religion , Governmment , Religion , and Financial . We we the pray , think , and study before we change anything . Ask yourself who is behind the change and if it is the ways of the world or is it Gods ways ?

  9. Elder Douglas Rose says

    It was so refreshing to read not only the blog post, but the comments on this article. So much of the discourse defending the biblical position on this issue is shrill and un-Christlike. It is good to see the compassionate, reasoned positions of people who refuse to condone sin, but do not descend into hateful language that is more likely to alienate than convert anyone to God’s word. We need people who can speak to this issue in the spirit of truth and good will toward men.
    Douglas Rose
    Missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Lakewood, New Jersey

  10. I appreciate the good exchange of elevated discussion in these e-mail responses (particularly between Karen and Dave). There is always good value in contributing and listening in an instructive and respectful manner.
    And though it is perhaps true that multiple worldviews exist for the purposes of this discussion, multiple worldviews, within the UM church, should not exist in relation to the integrity of scripture or adherence to the UM discipline. As a church, where do we place our feet and on what do we choose to stand? Just yesterday, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution opposing gay marriage. Why would a denomination, in this age of capitulation and currying favor, seek to stand four-square against the prevailing winds of change? Perhaps they truly believe that there are fundamental issues at stake which cannot be compromised. Certainly, the SBC understood that they were staking out a position that would bring about cries of intolerance and homophobia. I believe they choose to elevate the issue of gay marriage (pro or con) to a stand concerning the right of any government to dictate the dissolution of religious doctrines and beliefs.
    For my part, I believe this issue is “a bridge too far”; there are issues to talk about, debate or develop some acceptable compromise. Respectfully, I would suggest that this issue, at this time, in the life of this church stands as a “game changer.” While there may be multiple worldviews through which this issue might be examined, there is only one basic question; and, that question is quite plain and stark. On what do we stand?

  11. E. Kadera says

    I just finished reading a number of excellent articles from the Pew Research Center, at http://www.pewforum.org, which address varying aspects of church growth and decline. I was also drawn to “Religious Groups’ Views on End-of-Life Issues.” It is interesting that the only two denominations (UCC and UU) that embraced euthanasia most strongly, unlike ALL of the other Christian and non Christian denominations listed, also “stress the importance of respecting individual conscience and choice.” While conscience is certainly vital to a genuine faith walk, leaning too far in that direction dissolves the teachings of the church in so much tepid bath water and sends them down the drain.

    I seem to remember that the Methodist Church split in the Civil War era, only to reconnect decades and decades later. It appears that the Methodist’s have weathered such strong disagreement before, and ultimately come out of it in tact. Perhaps a split in this case should not be feared.

  12. There is no such thing as a traditionalist. Just as there is no such thing as a progressive. That is only make believe titles in a make believe world. There only are the Christians, and those that have already been identified in Romans Chapter 1.
    18 But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness.[i] 19 They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. 20 For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

    21 Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. 23 And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

    24 So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. 25 They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 26 That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. Even the women turned against the natural way to have sex and instead indulged in sex with each other. 27 And the men, instead of having normal sexual relations with women, burned with lust for each other. Men did shameful things with other men, and as a result of this sin, they suffered within themselves the penalty they deserved.

    28 Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. 29 Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. 30 They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. 31 They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. 32 They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too.

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