Why the “local option” is not the answer

By Rob Renfroe –

Recently a progressive United Methodist pastor said to me, “I don’t understand why you can’t accept the local option. It lets pastors who want to marry gay couples do so. But it doesn’t compel people like you to perform such ceremonies. It allows annual conferences to ordain married homosexuals where that’s acceptable. But where the context is different – in the South, for example – you’re free not to. I don’t understand why you can’t live with that.”

I think that pastor got to the heart of the matter even though he didn’t realize it. And the heart of the matter is he doesn’t understand classical evangelicals. It has to be frustrating for progressives to come up with an approach they believe to be very reasonable and that allows everyone to do what they desire, only for us to find it unacceptable. After all, what could be more American than letting everyone “have it their way”?

What do progressives not get about us? For starters, we believe the Scriptures really are the word of God. When a pastor holds up a Bible in church and says, “The word of God for the people of God,” we don’t cross our fingers behind our backs, roll our eyes, or snicker when we respond, “Thanks be to God.” We honestly believe the Scriptures are “God-breathed” and, therefore, authoritative for our lives. We don’t think that we know more about salvation, sexuality, or the nature of God than the Bible does. We don’t believe we get to ignore or need to correct the parts of Scripture that a progressive culture finds hard to accept. Consequently, we cannot affirm any solution that allows pastors in the UM Church to teach or act contrary to what God has revealed in his written word. I know that progressive pastors who have been trained in liberal seminaries simply cannot comprehend that we would hold such a high view of Scripture. But that’s what we believe.

Progressives also do not comprehend how offensive it is for us to hear that all they want to do is provide a solution that “contextualizes” the Gospel. If all they meant by “contextualizing the Gospel” was thinking of creative ways to present Christ so that the Gospel spoke to people in different cultural settings, we’d be all for it. Missionaries attend months, if not years, of training to understand the culture they will be ministering in. How you present the Gospel to an atheistic philosophy professor in New England is much different from how you would share Christ with an uneducated, lower caste Hindu in India.

But when progressives talk about contextualizing the Gospel, they don’t mean presenting the same message in different ways. They mean changing the message to fit the values that culture holds dear. In the Bible Belt it’s still OK to teach traditional values because people there still accept marriage as one man and one woman. But in California, progressives tell us, to reach people you must have a liberalized sexual ethic, including the normalization of homosexual behavior and gay marriage. Why? Because people on the West Coast will turn you off if you tell them differently.

What progressives do not understand is that we traditionalists do not have a utilitarian view of truth. We don’t think the truth is whatever works or whatever sells. We don’t see the church as a soft drink company that is trying to offer something for everyone. Proclaiming the Gospel is not like trying to find a flavor that people will buy and decide that if it becomes popular enough, we’ll start selling it. Paul wrote, “You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us” (2 Corinthians 2.17). Progressives, true progressives, believe that people are free to create their own truth and whatever works for a person is true for that person. It’s hard for liberals to understand, but it is hurtful for us to see the Gospel treated as something so cheap. It is offensive for us to hear pastors and bishops present the truth of God’s word as a lump of clay that we can fashion into our own image or into the likeness of a fallen and sinful culture. Our job as Paul tells us is not to make the Gospel palatable, but plain.

Progressives also don’t understand how we see the work of the Holy Spirit. A resolution that is coming before my annual conference this May calls upon the church to change our sexual ethic because “the Holy Spirit is doing a new thing.” Evidently, they believe, the Holy Spirit is now revealing that same-gender sexual relations and same-sex marriage are acceptable in God’s sight. Of course, the sponsors of the resolution do not give a single reason to believe this is what the Spirit is doing. They simply state it as a fact.

What they don’t understand is that we will never be persuaded that “the new thing” the Spirit is doing is repealing the written word of God. The Spirit illumines our understanding of God and his will. The Spirit enables us to see in new ways the wonder of what God has done and what he has revealed – and even how these truths apply to our particular settings. But the Spirit never contradicts what the Scriptures teach because the Scriptures are God-breathed.  Has God changed his mind, received more light along the way, or become more progressive as the ages have passed? If not, then how can the same God now be revealing a sexual ethic that contradicts what he has previously stated to be his will?

I get that progressives just don’t get us. We believe the Bible, all of it, is the inspired word of God. They don’t. We believe the truth is what it is, not what we make it into. They don’t. We believe that what the Spirit reveals will always be true to the Scriptures. They don’t. We are coming from such different places that I understand it’s difficult for liberals to comprehend how we think.

But what progressives and centrists need to get is this: we will not be able to stay in a church that denies the full inspiration, truth, and authority of the Scriptures. And that’s really what’s behind “the local option.”

That’s why traditional evangelicals continue to press for a faithful church with a sexual ethic that is true to Scripture. Either the UM Church remains committed to God’s word or the UM Church will split. Progressives don’t have to “get” that, but they do need to believe it.


Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. He is the co-author with Walter Fenton of the new book titled Are We Really Better Together – An Evangelical Perspective on the Division within the UMC. This book describes just how deep the division is within the United Methodist Church, provides a critique of the various plans the bishops are considering, and gives answers to the most common reasons people give for liberalizing our sexual ethics.



  1. William (Bill) Fitzgerrel says:

    Thank you for explaining “contextualize.” That term has been thrown around for months, and I was not clear what they meant. It is another word for “accommodation.” The progressives want to accommodate everyone, but God wants to transform everyone through the power of the cross.
    Thanks for stating the conservative position clearly. One of the things that bugs me is that the progressives keep hammering at unity. Yet, their version of unity is not coming together in agreement on the things of God. It is dividing an institution into autonomous units that go in all different directions like vehicles in a big city. They are trying to sell us on the idea that we should support such an institution because we can go our own direction while they go theirs. Such an institution is not the church–the body of Christ. If one reads Ephesians 4:10-16, one gets a vision of a body that is unified by faith and the knowledge of the Son of God. Such a body nurtures maturity that protects us from deceitful teachings. Thank you for “speaking the truth in love” to the UMC, an institution that is rapidly degenerating from God’s vision for the church.

  2. Oxymoron = a “local option” plan would keep us united by dividing us. We would have designed a whole new theology — contextual Christianity. Now, as the Book of Discipline and all church literature were going through revision, exactly how would two diabolically opposite theologies, doctrines, and Biblical understandings be incorporated into such a revision? Most important, how would this new united/divided church then go about preaching and teaching two conflicting, contradictory, and opposing messages at the same time? How could this new vehicle travel both east and west simultaneously?

    • William, I agree with you, but you keep using the words “diabolically opposed” in your comments here. I believe you mean “diametrically opposed.” But diabolically opposed may be an excellent “Freudian slip” in a sense!

  3. exactly

  4. Pudentiana says:

    When I read II Thessalonians 2:11 for years, it never occurred to me that this could be a part of such a strong delusion, but it does fit the “contextualization” as in “and with every wicked deception directed against those who are perishing, because they refused the love of the truth that would have saved them. 11For this reason, God will send them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie, ” If people won’t believe the truth, I guess they prefer a lie and God will allow it. This may be why they cannot “understand”J

  5. Patti Atkins says:

    Plain enough for me. Thanks Rob

  6. Wayne Hicks says:

    It seems as though the conclusions of this article are based on the assumption that Scripture may only be interpreted one way. Am I understanding the intent here correctly?

    • With relation to the deep disagreement in the UMC over what constitutes marriage, Jesus defined marriage, or reiterated it, as that between a man and a woman, going on to point out the uniqueness of this union as the two become one flesh. Are there other kinds of marriages as understood from an alternative interpretation of this scripture? If so, how so?


      • Wayne Hickd says:

        If one reads through verse 9 in the passage you cite, it would seem we have long ago adapted somewhat of a flexible interpretation model as to the seemingly cut and dry.

        • Randy Kiel says:

          No. God does consider divorce a sin. Those of us in the clergy who are divorced (at least most of us in more “traditionalist” areas) repent of that sin. One who will marry a same-sex couple or who is a self-avowed practicing homosexual is intentionally committing/participating in sin, without repentance.

          • Divorce is half the equation in v9. Jesus says divorce + remarriage = adultery.*
            If one is divorced and remarried, according to what Jesus says, they would be committing/participating in sin as long as they remained with the subsequent spouse. It would be impossible to repent and still stay in an adulterous relationship.

            *In Matthew, not Mark, there is an exception for a REALLY ambiguous Hebrew phrase in Deut. Jesus seems to have taken the more rigid interpretation relative to Rabbinical debate of the time, especially in Mark’s account.

          • Wayne, two wrongs don’t make a right. Regardless of how we understand vs. 9 it doesn’t justify ignoring vs 4-5.

            Also, understand there is a danger in reading more into the text than it is saying. Divorce for non-adultery reasons + remarriage = adultery. and adultery = adultery. Regardless, it seems what is in view is that the dissolution of a marriage is sin, (i.e. never to be desired). However once a divorce has happened, it is done. If someone comes to the church and has already divorced and remarried, I cannot see in that passage that they are continually committing adultery. Certainly they did at some point, but at the same time God has allowed them to enter into a new covenant relationship before him. So who am I to condemn that relationship? Repentance in that scenario looks like committing to the spouse in a way that clearly the divorcee never did to the previous one that they may not commit that grievous sin again. Obviously there is significantly more to be teased out here, but this is just to respond to your point.

            Too many churches do take divorce FAR too lightly, but there is a ditch on the other side of the road as well (whether seriously suggested or straw man argument). And, being wrong on the first doesn’t justify being wrong on the second, just reforming the first teaching.

          • Andrew,
            My apologies for being unclear. I am not saying that two wrongs would make a right.
            What I am getting at here is this. There are two equally direct statements in the cited conversation with Jesus.
            If we are to say that statement number two (v9) bears further explanation (as you have thoughtfully done in your 2nd paragraph) how does statement one (vv4-5) stand unalteringly at face value?
            Conversely, if we are to say statement one stands unalteringly at face value, why should statement two deserve nuance?

          • Wayne,
            No apology needed, although I do really appreciate your respectful tone.

            I actually agree with you that we need to be consistent in our interpretive approach. We should work to understand the intended meaning of each statement in its fullness and to apply that meaning.

            I disagree with you on what Matthew 19:9 says (namely the indicative verb rather than a present progressive, i.e. one time action not continuing).

            However, there is a reason I think those statements could justifiably be understood differently. In 4-5, Christ is quoting from the creation narrative, so we get God in creation defining marriage in such a way that it is almost inextricable from being human (at minimum we all should come from a marriage whether or not we are married ourselves). In verse 9, however, Christ is explaining how that plays out and a concession that God made through Moses. So, one is a creation mandate, and the other is a derivative concession. If that makes sense?

        • Jesus was INTERPRETING Genesis 2:18-24 in his description of marriage as recorded in both Matthew and Mark during his discourse on divorce. Flexible interpretation model? By what AUTHORITY does one have to reinterpret what Jesus has already interpreted, using his own clear and unequivocal interpretation model?

          • Jesus spoke just as clearly in v9 as he did in v4-5. Yet a significant percentage of our parishioners (and a good number of our clergy) would not be married if v9 was treated the same way as v4-5. One statement seems to be taken as an immovable standard while the other as a flexible ideal.

        • No matter what our clergy, or anyone else, is doing, saying, advocating, or contextualizing in 2018 with relation to verse 9, that does not change what Jesus said forcefully in verses 4-6 as he unequivocally told us what God’s created, as recorded in Genesis to which he referenced, order for marriage. Nothing man can devise will ever change that.


          • Both statements are part of the same conversation and are equally forceful and unequivocal. I find nuancing or disregarding one, while taking the other at face value, inconsistent and perplexing.

          • Wayne,
            I agree with you that the statements made by Jesus on both marriage and divorce are equllly forceful and unequivocal, thus making verse 9 completely supportive of verses 4-6 with relation to what God’s created order of marriage is. In verse 9, Jesus did not say when a man divorces his spouse, significant other, partner, lover, et al. He said WIFE. So, thank you for tying verses 4-6 and verse 9 together in order to demonstrate that Jesus, indeed, described marriage as that between a MAN and a WOMAN. In fact, this points out that there can be only one kind of divorce, that being the divorce of a MAN and a WOMAN. So, from this it is impossible to honestly see Jesus describing any other kind of marriage other than that of a MAN and a WOMAN.

        • John Cobil says:

          I think it’s pretty clear that if a clergy person said “I like divorce, I think it’s a fine thing to do, and I will probably have two or three more over the next decade” would not be made a bishop. Similarly, one who said “I had a homosexual relationship in the past but have repented of that and do not intend to do it again” could. This is not rocket science. I don’t know about Wayne, but others use arguments like this in hopes of confusing a clear issue enough to justify not changing sinful behavior.

          • John,
            You have identified the very essence of the Scriptural argument that liberals have used over these too many years with relation to the practice of homosexuality and, more recently, same-sex marriage — CONFUSION. Many have begged them to direct us traditionalists to any Scripture that supports their argument so that we can better understand where they’re coming from. For over 45 years, nobody has produced a single Scripture to support their position.

            Instead, their only approach has been to attack the Bible with convoluted, incoherent interpretation schemes in an attempt to CONFUSE those Scriptures that name the practice of homosexuality as a sin and those Scriptures that describe God’s created order for marriage as that between a man and a woman. With this approach, their goal is to create enough doubt in the authority of those Scriptures with enough people so as to take their plan across the finish line with the help of the secular argument of full inclusiveness.

            Scripture in fully on the side of traditionalists. Will the Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, et al go into St Louis with that as their weapon to present to the delegates in order to stop the bishops and turn our church back in the right direction? This is a Biblical argument. The General Conference of 2019 MUST be turned into that in order to solve this schism.

    • That’s what he is saying when it comes to human sexuality. I’m not sure what he feels about other issues.

    • Rob Renfroe says:

      Wayne, good people can interpret Scripture in different ways. What we can’t do is read into Scripture what we want it to say or even “what it means to me” and claim that to be a valid interpretation. The traditional criteria for interpreting a passage are (1) What was the author’s original intent and (2) what would his original readers have understood the author to mean? We simply cannot take the writings of first-century authors and read our post-modern Western cultural assumptions into the text and claim that to be a valid interpretation. It’s more honest to say, “I don’t believe the Bible” or “I think the author wasn’t inspired by God.”

      Every reference to homosexual behavior in the Bible is negative. It’s clear and consistent. No, we don’t get to somehow turn that into a positive and claim it to be a valid interpretation. We are also called to love our neighbors, regardless of lifestyle, and that’s just as clear.

  7. I don’t think people understand how ugly the local option will be. As long as the squabbles were conducted at GC the rest of us could go about our business. But when each church has to make the choice then it will get personal. Very personal. Friends who have worshipped together for years will not be speaking to each other. People will leave and some of them will not land in another church. They will simply leave. Never to be seen again. The financial impacts can only be guessed at for now.

  8. Brenda Ellis says:

    Thank you, Rob, for always making the Scriptures plain rather than palatable. We, as traditional Christians, should understand that our views will never be popular or trendy. We have to remind ourselves that popular and trendy are easily and soon replaced. Just as the progressives try to rewrite history or news, so, too, do they try to reinterpret the Scriptures. Your reminder is helpful to me as I struggle to understand alternative views.
    Brenda Ellis

  9. Yes. This is the crossroad. No amount of conversations or contextualizatiions is going to move truth. There are not multiple solutions to this equation, just life or death. A Christian cannot then choose life for himself and remain on the sidelines, magnanimously waving on his brothers and sisters as they hitch themselves to a caravan toward Hell, especially as he is harnessed to them.

  10. Linda Szaflarski says:

    I have on my desktop saved these words,GOD does not change with popular opinion.

  11. Pamela Wehmeyer says:

    I would like to think that for the Bible to be the absolute unerring Word of God, there would be absolutely no dichotomy and all would be consistent and plain. Well guess what? 3 times I have read the Bible and each time I see an inconsistency (sometimes delightful), or a conflict because that is what the Bible is. If you don’t believe me, just check Leviticus in its entirely. We are all sinning cafeteria Christians because no one has lived up the the Bible’s standards obeying everything (never will either)….with the exception of Jesus and HE wanted to break up several of the stigmatic interpretations himself. We choose which passage is more important and more emphatic or less emphatic for our own lives. We then cling to clergy or fellowship that reinforce these importances whether grace or law driven or even by fear and sometimes…..even prejudice. Denominations change and mutate all the time….so what? The steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. My denomination made the painful decision to recognize gay pastors, couples and the lifestyle because we believe that love and grace must be given to all. We lost many parishioners at first, but gained a more loving congregation in the end. No issue will be totally solved in our lifetime. I prefer to stay inclusive because of the sheer hurt and danger many of my gay brothers and sisters have endured simply because they crave a loving God and a monogamous recognition. Call it compromise, but then again, everything is. God is absolute. The Bible is not….unless you deify it. I would hate to think you put the Bible on the same level as our Lord. Please say this is not so.

    • susan orange says:

      So if you continually reinterpret the Scripture to suit your desire and what you feel is kinder, then what is Truth and where do you find it? How do you know God without His Word?

    • Pamela, the problem is your theology is incorrect. We are Christians and not part of the old covenant. The purity laws have been replaced by the sacrifice of Christ. The morality laws are now written on our heart and not in stone. The prohibition against homosexuality is found in the new testament which is the Christian law. Jesus himself reaffirmed marriage as between a man and a woman. Paul, who was Jesus’ hand picked apostle to the gentiles made it very clear that both male and female homosexuality is a sin. God did not make anyone sinful. Humanity is stained by the sinful nature of our ancestors and ourselves and we now live in a imperfect world. We all have sinful desires that we have to conquer. that we were made with.

    • Pamela, you do realize there has been progressive revelation throughout the Bible, right? So then, thoughtful Christians work out what the Bible is teaching by interpreting the Bible by the Bible.

      Christ quotes scripture over and over again through the gospel accounts, Paul and the other apostles quote scripture extensively in the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles. In each case, the understanding is that the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, and sufficient Word of God. Therefore, it is not that the Bible itself is deified (that’s a strawman), but rather that God has condescended to give us and preserve for us these words of His to which we would do well to pay attention. Passages in 2 Timothy and Hebrews among other places would certainly back up my understanding.

      To respond to your statement about “the hurt and danger of my gay brothers and sisters:” If we believe, in line with the whole of the Bible’s storyline in God’s holiness, righteousness, judgement, and wrath, as well as His love, then by turning a blind eye to what the Bible calls sin, we are really doing everything in our power to condemn “our brothers and sisters” to hell. That is not loving or kind, and, furthermore, it demeans what Christ did for us on that cross. I would think very carefully before I began to disregard the word that God has given us, and I will be praying for you.

  12. To me the local option is pretty much moving us into a congregational reality. How many of us have served in places where congregational churches split over much less divisive issues than homosexuality. It’s sad to me that the two options that are being put forth eliminated the “traditional” (I prefer Evangelical or Orthodox as label).

  13. God is the SAME yesterday, today and forever………His word is not progressive, IT IS….

  14. both fundamentalists and progressives have a warped process for interpreting and applying Scripture.

    while the point of the spear is the LGBT issue, the deeper issue is how we engage with Scripture that is holistic. I do believe it is God’s Word and I want to honor all of it. I most of all want to honor the Words of Jesus Christ because God wanted to make sure we heard His will clearly. And that underlies that we (clergy and lay) don’t have a solid process for discerning the universal truth of Scripture. Too often I see people have a viewpoint and then make Scripture say what they want it to say. Fundamentalists treat the Bible as one big rule book, but also picking and choosing what rules are most important. Progressives like to point out the limited passages on homosexuality and deconstruct them one by one. They (think they) chop down the few trees and then say “look! no forest!” When in fact, there is a clear witness on God’s ideal for human sexuality from Genesis to Revelation.
    Or I hear the argument of omission (Jesus didn’t address it.) Except he did talk about marriage AND celibacy. And there is never a “you’ve heard it said ____, but I say _____” concerning homosexuality coming from Jesus. And always the argument from love – with a very poor definition of God’s love.

    As stated above, the work of the Holy Spirit would guide us if we are willing to listen. When the early church had to wrestle with with what to do with those immoral Gentiles, God offered a clear sign through glossolalia. God wanted to make sure we humans plainly saw the “signs.” And that is a mark of any “new thing” – miracles, SIGNS, and wonders. Unless I am in the wrong circles, I have seen no clear sign from the Holy Spirit offering a progressive new way forward. And surely the Spirit would not be telling 51% one thing and 49% another, nor would the Spirit send a “contextual message” to one part of the United States and something else to Africa.

    Over twenty-five years of ministry, I have seen the progressives try every door imaginable to get this tip of the spear firmly planted into the denomination. First it was the language in the Book of Disciple (we are council-liar not creedal) – until the pendulum of delegates began to swing away from that opportunity. Next came re-interpreting Scripture (Scripture is primary), to argue that there is no clear witness. Table conversations with advocates for LGBT inclusion leading the way at my Annual Conference. And now ecclesial disobedience, but without accountability from Bishops who themselves are silently (and sometimes loudly) cheering for the progressive cause. And that word cause should not be overlooked. There are a number of progressives who would rather see the denomination fall apart than have it continue to uphold “unjust” treatment of LGBT persons.

    The church as a whole does need to repent of our treatment of LGBT persons through the centuries and even recently in US history. Still we must hold up holiness and love, grace and truth and offer God’s way forward.

  15. Glen,
    You use the word repent. In our communion worship service once per month, we read together the communion prayer asking for forgiveness for not being an obedient church. That certainly would include the mistreatment of anyone, anywhere in the name of the church now and historically. That also means asking for forgiveness for not being obedient to the Word of God and preaching the repentance and salvation message as often as possible for the salvation of the individual sinner. My minister references repentance most every Sunday in his sermon — no hell fire and damnation, mind you, but the message of Justifying Grace espoused by John Wesley. Bottom lind — has the UMC been so focused on love, open door, and going along to get along these past several decades that it has abdicated it’s calling to offer salvation to the sinner by intentionally focused preaching of the three grace pillows of Wesley, Prevenient Grace, JUSTIFYING GRACE (emphasis), and Sanctifying Grace?

  16. Rob nailed it, The Bible matters, especially to a sinner. A sinner who approaches the Creator and asks for forgiveness and works to change their ways from sinful to holy is exactly what Jesus wanted from us. It’s called repentance and if The UMC doesn’t preach repentance then those of us who believe in what the Bible says about repentance and the hope that it provides to all who sin and fall short of Gods Glory. Jesus gives us grace and we can choose to abuse it and continue in sin or be grateful for the pardon and work towards following the moral laws. The New Testament does not require us to follow the ceremonial laws, although we are not barred from practicing them. A ceremonial law would be eating a Kosher diet as an example.

  17. Rob,
    Well said brother. You have simply and accurately described the plight that our denomination is in.
    Thank you for your faithfulness to God and His Word and being relentless in keeping us informed and enlightened at this critical point in time.

  18. Rob,

    You sound weary and yet resolute. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and married into the UMC. Both of them suffer from not being confessional, IMHO. My education growing up int the Episcopal Church was a very limited catechism and vague references to the 39 Articles, which have been downgraded from binding to a document of “historical significance.” My daughters’ catechesis in the UMC (Va Annual Conference) was a complete joke. Again, no confessional documents to clearly define the faith and I don’t think they ever studied any of Wesley’s sermons.

    I have been most impressed by what the Presbyterians (not PCUSA) and the Lutherans (not ELCA) do for catechesis based on their confessional documents. With good confessional statements and seminaries that adhere to historically orthodox biblical interpretation, the Presbyterians and Lutherans appear to be holding firm for the Gospel in the face of a hostile culture and accommodating Christian denominations. It’s not without difficulties as what the LCMS experienced in their Seminex episode, but it seems to work.

    I wish the faithful remnant of the UMC, wherever they land, could structure a confessional faith that would clearly set out the bounds of what to believe, teach and confess. I think it would serve Methodism well.

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