I Confess: I Don’t Understand

The Rev. Rob Renfroe

By Rob Renfroe –

I remain confounded as to why the majority of bishops would endorse “The “One Church Plan” as a way to unify the denomination. In a previous editorial, I suggested that one reason is they do not comprehend who we evangelicals are, what we believe, and how deeply we hold those beliefs. They simply cannot understand that many of us will feel compelled to leave the denomination should the United Methodist Church change its sexual ethics. So, in the name of unity, they are supporting a plan that will actually cause the church to shatter.

I’ve done some introspection and I confess that I don’t understand those who are behind the “One Church Plan.”  I think I understand progressives. They believe we should change the church’s position so that all pastors are compelled to marry gay couples and all annual conferences will ordain practicing homosexuals. They believe any other policy is unjust, homophobic, and a failure to be like Jesus who accepted everyone. I disagree with progressives, but I understand why they think the church should change and change now.

It’s the “centrists” I cannot comprehend. They believe the church can hold and promote two contradictory sexual ethics at the same time. Under the “One Church Plan,” some of us in the name of Jesus could teach that homosexual practice is contrary to God’s will and refuse to marry gay couples. Others of us, also in the name of Jesus, could teach and do the opposite. Some annual conferences could reject the ordination of practicing homosexuals whereas other conferences could ordain such persons – both in the name and with the authority of the same United Methodist Church. The One Church Plan would allow some of us to teach that the practice of homosexuality is a sin and others of us to call it a blessing.

I cannot understand how anyone can suggest that one church hold such contradictory positions. Do centrists believe that God has not spoken about sexuality so each of us is free to determine our own position? Do they believe that God has spoken, but not clearly enough for the church to know his mind so it’s acceptable to teach contradictory doctrines? Or do they believe that God has spoken clearly, but God’s views on sexuality are not important enough for the entire church to have one position?

I know that some centrists have said they want the church to adopt a fully progressive position, but their local churches are not ready for such a big change. So, the One Church Plan is a way of providing their congregations time to change their views with the least disruption. Still, I don’t understand. If ordaining and marrying gay persons are matters of justice or of being true to the Spirit of Jesus, how long should we give people to change? I would like the centrists to tell me how long they would have given their congregations to welcome persons of color into their churches or for their pastor to perform interracial marriages. Would they have promoted a plan that allowed churches to discriminate against African Americans for a time? Or would they have said, “faithfulness to Jesus means we must be fully inclusive now, and if it disrupts local congregations, so be it. If we don’t embrace persons of color, we’re not really the church, anyway.” That I could understand – and respect (and agree with). But I simply don’t understand how principled people can promote a plan that allows for what they believe is discriminatory, unjust, and unfaithful to Christ until their congregations at some future indeterminate time finally become enlightened. 

Something else I don’t understand is what centrists believe has changed since General Conference 2016. As president of the Council of Bishops at that time, Bishop Warner Brown (now retired) called progressive, centrist, and evangelical leaders together at the beginning of that General Conference to discuss how we might move forward with a spirit of mutual respect. It was one of the leading centrists who said in that meeting, “I think it’s inevitable that the church will split.” His statement turned what was to be one meeting into four. Our talks were respectful and frank. Before the meeting concluded, all of us agreed that none of the plans before General Conference – what now are known as the “connectional church plan,” the “one church plan,” and the “traditionalist plan” – could hold the church together. 

In Portland before the Conference ended, a different leading centrist, the Rev. Adam Hamilton, told a group of college and seminary students that as he sat in those meetings and as he thought about the growing number of African delegates, “I began to think no matter what, even if we allow conservatives to go, we’re still in the same stuck place. … So the conversation began to be what if a special commission was appointed (to) … develop … a plan for reordering the life of the people called Methodists in the United Methodist Church. That plan for reordering would create out of one UM church potentially three new UM churches.  One would be the conservative UM Church. One would be a church for those who are progressive who only want to be in a church with people who are progressive …. And then a church for … United Methodists who are somewhere in the middle…. I’m sitting in these meetings and I’m like ‘I feel like I want to throw up’ when I ’m thinking about this and I’m also thinking I don’t really see any other way that we’re ever going to break past the gridlock.”

So, centrist leaders agreed behind closed doors that our differences are irreconcilable and then went out and told the world that the only way to break our gridlock was to adopt a plan that would create three new churches. But shortly thereafter, they began to promote the One Church Plan that is hard to distinguish from the “local option” plan they had agreed would not “break past the gridlock.”

I don’t understand. What has changed? Maybe something has and I’m not aware of it. The centrist leaders were promoting the One Church Plan long before the commission made its report and prior to the majority of bishops endorsing the centrist plan. So something must have changed that had nothing to do with the commission or the bishops that made the One Church Plan now capable of breaking our gridlock and unifying the church. But I have no idea what that might be.

I also don’t understand why centrist leaders believe they can determine for the rest of us that we should be able to live with a compromised sexual ethic. Centrist leaders have been quoted in recent news articles and have told us in personal conversations, “Marriage and ordination of homosexual persons is not an issue that should divide the church.”  Leaders with the “Uniting Methodists” caucus are not only proposing a change in our sexual ethics that we believe contradicts the clear teaching of the Scriptures and leads people into sin, but they also feel they have the right to tell the rest of us how we should respond to those changes.

Imagine that I tell my wife, “I’d like to change our covenant. The change would allow me to do what you believe is wrong and unfaithful, but it shouldn’t break up our marriage because you don’t have to do the same things if you don’t want to.  Honestly, dear, I don’t see my changing our covenant as a marriage-dividing issue and you shouldn’t either.”

I think my wife would believe she has the right to decide what kind of marriage she can and cannot live with. I am also very sure she would find it rather demeaning that I thought I could tell her how she ought to respond to the changes I wanted to make to our covenant. It certainly would not make her feel like a valued and equal partner. Nor would that kind of disrespect  make her want to remain in our relationship.

I am completely clueless how others who want to change our covenant feel comfortable telling me how I should react. I get to decide how I will respond if the church adopts a position that violates my conscience and makes me complicit in promoting what the Bible teaches is contrary to God’s will and harms people. So do you.

I think I understand progressives within the church. But I confess: I don’t get centrists. I don’t understand what they believe about sexual ethics, why they think a plan they once said wouldn’t solve our problems now will, or how they feel comfortable telling traditionalists that we should not make a big deal out of a plan that contradicts the Scriptures and two thousand years of Christian teaching.

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