Unity or Truth?

By Thomas Lambrecht-

Many see the conflict currently raging in The United Methodist Church as a contest between unity and truth. Is it more important to follow what we believe to be the truth or to stay united as a denomination?

There are both progressives and conservatives fighting on the basis of allegiance to the truth. Many conservatives believe that the Bible clearly teaches an understanding of human sexuality that reserves sexual expression for the context of marriage between one man and one woman. That is the truth, as we see it — God’s unchanging will for human flourishing. And we believe in standing firm for that truth. We believe the church should teach that truth and advocate for it in the culture. We believe the denomination should clearly state that truth and not waffle or waver. And if worst came to worst and the denomination refused to maintain the truth, we would find ourselves compelled to depart for another church whose beliefs lined up with what we believe the Bible teaches.

Many progressives believe that the Bible teaches a different truth — or at least that the Bible doesn’t prohibit a different truth. They believe that sexual expression can be found to be equally holy and fulfilling between persons of the same gender as of those of an opposite gender. They believe that denying the possibility of sexual relationships to same-sex couples is a violation of how God created them. As such, the church must be encouraged or forced to change its teaching to allow for maximum self-realization for persons with same-sex attractions, as well as those with opposite-sex attractions. Progressives believe in standing firm for this truth. They advocate for it strenuously. They stage demonstrations and other forms of protest. And in the final analysis, if the church’s rules contradict the truth as they see it, they are willing to violate the church’s rules, sacrificing unity in order to abide by the truth as they see it.

Both groups value truth above unity. Where living in unity as a church would compromise their understanding of the truth, both groups say No Compromise.

There are others who value unity of the church above a commitment to a certain understanding of the truth — at least with regard to the church’s teaching about sexuality. Some believe that the only way to resolve the difference of opinion over sexuality is for the church to continue arguing and discussing the merits of the various understandings of truth. Eventually, they believe, the real truth will become evident. Until that time comes, they believe the church must stay together in order to have the greatest impact on the world in which we live.

Some in the unity group believe that homosexual relationships are permitted by Scripture, but they are willing to wait until the majority of the church becomes convinced of that fact. They are willing to put up with contradictory opinions existing in the same church with the hope that conservatives will eventually see the light and come over to their perspective. They remember how conservatives used to be against divorced clergy, but now seem willing to permit it. In the same way, they hope conservative opinion will “evolve” to supporting same-sex relationships.

Persons in the unity group maintain that the biggest impact our church can have on our society is to show that it is possible to live together and work together, even with drastically different understandings of the truth. I would maintain that our impact would be dramatically weakened by the fact that we cannot agree on what we are promoting. As Paul said, “Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the flute or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” (I Corinthians 14:7-8).

It seems like the “local option” proposal would be perfectly positioned for the unity group. Allow everyone to act in keeping with his or her conscience, and we can all live together in one church. What could be more reasonable than that?

This approach, however, fails to reckon with those who place truth above unity. While unity may be an important value for these groups, truth is an even higher value. Conservatives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to support what we believe is contrary to God’s will as taught in Scripture. And progressives will be unable to compromise with the truth in order to allow parts of the church to engage in what they believe is sinful discrimination against persons. (You can read a well-written explanation of this progressive point of view on this blog by Rev. Charlie Parker here.)

If the local option were to be enacted, there would be an exodus of conservatives from the church, and the progressives would redouble their advocacy efforts to convince everyone to buy into their understanding. That ongoing advocacy pressure would continue to drive out conservatives, until the church would have only progressives left in it. At that point, it would be easy for the church to mandate that everyone must support and affirm same-sex relationships.

In its quest for unity through the local option, the church would in fact ensure the division of the church through the departure of conservatives. That would indeed bring about unity through the “purification” of the church in eliminating the conservative viewpoint. This has already happened in some annual conferences in the Western Jurisdiction, where conservatives have been marginalized to the point that their voices are inconsequential.

One way or another, any resolution to the conflict in the church will entail some form of separation. The only questions to be resolved are: 1) How will that separation take place? and 2) Will there be any remaining relationship or connection between those who have separated?

Under the first two sketches that have been offered by the Commission on a Way Forward and the Council of Bishops, the separation would take place by those who could no longer live with the policies and practices of the church deciding to leave in a piecemeal, disorganized fashion. Neither sketch envisions a continuing relationship between those who leave and the church they have left behind.

The third sketch, a multi-branch proposal, envisions an orderly choice by annual conferences, local congregations, and bishops/clergy as to what part of the church they want to belong to. On matters of sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons, there would be separation between the branches. But this sketch envisions an ongoing relationship and shared participation between the branches to enable ministries that all agree on to continue.

The Christian Church has adapted and survived and thrived despite innumerable splits, divisions, and schisms over the last 2,000 years. God’s Church is not dependent upon us necessarily getting it right. There will always be believers who will unite together to worship the one, true God and to live out the ministry of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As we work toward a way forward, my hope is that we can find a way that does the least damage to the church and its ministry, and to the people who make up the church. In the end, our understanding of the truth will become the most important determining factor about where we individually end up.

Please lift up the Commission on a Way Forward in your prayers this week, as they meet today through Saturday.

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

Comments

  1. Progressives would certainly accept both Option #2 and Option #3 if necessary in order to block Option #1. They would view this as winning the fight on points by going all fifteen rounds instead of ending it earliy with a knock out. Either option would be seen as a green light for them to go full steam ahead to eventually bring the entire church around to their position. I prefer Option #1 with real financial consequences as the enforcer. But, many do not believe this is realistic. With God’s help, anything is realistic. Do the traditionalists just not have the courage to step out in faith and vote to uphold church doctrine and the BOD? The 2016 delegates at the General Conference were not willing to liberalize the BOD. Will these same delegates have a change of heart and be willing to do so in 2019? If they’re not willing to stand their ground in 2019, then Option #4 is the only other way forward in order to end this schism — that being a clean, complete, and clearly defined separation. Options #2 and #3 would only certify the fight and make it official church policy as either would only intensify the fight and the ensuing decline. Besides, how would the church ever be able to communicate to its own members, and especially those in the outside world, two completely different and conflicting theologies and Scriptural interpretations on sin and marriage?

  2. Option three is just option two in disguise unless it is a complete split, with possibly sharing Wespath for benefits. How do you justify sharing agencies when you have competing theologies. Having a single council of bishops is even worse. Will conservatives want to be overseen by Oliveto. Only a complete split will satisfy most conservatives. By the way sharing a single pension plan is a bad deal for conservatives. Every denomination that has gone progressive has entered in to rapid decline. If both “wings” share a single pension plan, the conservatives will end up paying the bulk of the money to subsidize the pensions (I am sure they will become very generous, if they behave like most progressive bodies) of the progressive wing. By the way, chaos is not always bad. When Saul persecuted the church in Jerusalem, they scattered and spread the word throughout the Middle East. The early church thrived in chaos.

  3. Bill Payne says:

    Denominations are human creations. The point of reference for discerning biblical unity is the Holy Spirit. One Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one church. When a denomination moves into serious error, it needs to be corrected or abandoned. This is the issue that confronts evangelical UMs.

  4. I would like to thank Thomas Lambrecht for the voice he brings to these discussions. While I may not agree with all of his conclusions, I appreciate the time that he has taken to listen and try to understand the various perspectives, and the respect with which he treats all parties. I hope to live up to the example he sets for everyone involved in theses discussions.

  5. Gary Bebop says:

    Tom has shown remarkable statecraft in setting forth these arguments lucidly and winsomely, while concealing his own true assessments and biases. We are all waiting for “the other shoe to drop,” so to speak. Most of us would like a clean end to the drama. But I don’t think the earth will open up and swallow the church’s troublemakers. We are beyond the moment when more exhalations and exhortations will help. We are waiting for courageous and godly leadership to “show up and speak up” on behalf of a true way forward.

  6. Renee Rada says:

    To quote Charles Spurgeon, ” To pursue union at the cost of truth is treason to the Lord Jesus Christ”. If both the conservative and progressive movements within the UMC have different convictions of what the truth proclaims and we continue to affiliate within one body together would we, combined, be treasonous to the Lord Jesus? I would be inclined to think so.

    • Renee,
      Exactly. With either Option #2 or #3, the church would be FORCED to make it OFFICIAL that this denomination has two entirely different and absolutely conflicting interpretations of the Bible, church theology, and church doctrine. It would be IMPOSSIBLE to communicate and would completely handcuff the church in its mission. One group would be attempting to preach repentance, forgiveness of sin, and a transformed new life in Christ while the other group would be preaching a new message of a transformed, modern Christ conformed to this new age world with the accompanying acceptance of sexual immorality now and all the other sins that would eventually accompany it.

      Either Option #2 or Option #3 (actually just a confusing restatement of #2), could NEVER work, and would only accelerate the decline of the UMC!!

  7. A view from the pew:

    “On matters of sexuality, same-sex marriage, and the ordination of non-celibate LGBTQ persons,…”

    The above statement points to the unacknowledged elephant in the room–the fact that the sexuality question has evolved beyond same gender relationships and now encompasses other sexual identities such as “B”, bisexual; “T”, transgender, and whatever “Q” means and sometime “I” and “A”–all of which has gained a level of acceptance among progressives, including Bishops. When do we have the discussions on these added forms of sexuality?

    And then there is the second elephant in the room: the numerical decline that has plagued the American church for 50 years. 45 of those years have been spent in arguing over sexuality. During those 45 years, multiple GC’s have clearly and consistently spoken re sexuality and somehow that is not important or has any meaning. Who wants to be part of an organization that no longer trusts in its own processes and is considering reorganizing itself just to maintain the conflict? There is no earthly organization that has ever survived because it possessed contradictory understandings of what it needs to be doing. As a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist, I have absolutely no problem in declaring the experiment in Big Tent Methodism as a colossal failure.

  8. Commission on a Way Forward

    It can probably be said that what the below says could have been said with a wee bit more coherence and a little less convolution:

    http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/commission-on-a-way-forward-prepares-updated-report-to-bishops

    • If you read the story William has linked then it becomes clear that the Bishops are putting unity ahead of everything else. They are determined to maintain their power and control, even if we split. Another article on the UM news website from the 22nd restates the three options and then follows this statement “All three models come with a way for churches to exit the denomination”. This is the first time I have seen what a graceful exit actually defined in this way by some type of official source. Reading between the lines it looks like the Bishops are going to push option 2 and provide a release valve (exit) for conservatives who will not tolerate the local option. This is my gut feeling. Two groups will support this. The progressives and those nice people who just want to get along. I am afraid that many of the moderates won’t support a meaningful option 1 and option 3 is way too complicated to pull off.

  9. It would be so wonderfu, so joyful, so uplifting, so exciting for the Commission on a Way Forward to be routinely functioning from genuine routine protocol unity itself and commissioned to bring forth a plan to grow, enhance, and transform the UMC by going forth and preaching a unified Gospel of:

    UNITY IN (not or) TRUTH

  10. Ronald Swanson says:

    In my bible, Mark 3:25 Jesus said ” and if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand”

  11. Greta Kirby says:

    If the United Methodists were truly grounded in the Scriptures this problem would not have evolved to this point. The Holy Scriptures are VERY CLEAR about homosexuality as well as other sexual matters.. Adhere to scripture! This whole debate should have NEVER happened.

  12. Robert A Combes says:

    What we have going on is the law of unintended consequences. When the UMC declared Open Doors, Open Minds, Open Hearts, it became misconstrued to mean in many quarters that God made me this way, why must I undergo change. Also from many a pulpit came the announcement that God loves you just the way you are, leaving out the part or failing to follow up where one would eventually face the fact that God requires change and the realization of your standing in grace comes w/ scripture, prayer, homilies, and through the Holy Spirit, yes many times gradually, but the initial encounter w/ Christ is profound, which is my experience.

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