Is History an Argument for the One Church Plan?

By Thomas Lambrecht

A recent newsletter published by Mainstream UMC argues that, just as the church changed its understanding and teaching about slavery, the role of women in the church, and divorced clergy, the church can change its understanding and teaching about marriage and homosexuality. The church got it “wrong” in the past, and now the church can get it “right.” Leaving aside the validity of comparing the past historical issues of slavery, the role of women, and divorce with the contemporary controversies surrounding marriage and homosexuality, I do not think this argument supports the One Church Plan. 

To me, this is an argument for the Simple Plan, which removes all prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. If the church’s interpretation of Scripture is wrong on marriage and sexuality, then we ought to mandate a change in our interpretation. 

The One Church Plan, however, envisions staying united in “one church” but having two different understandings and two different teachings about marriage and homosexuality that will supposedly be equally valid and affirmed by the church. That is not what the church did with regard to slavery, the role of women, or with divorce. 

Essentially, the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early 1800s operated under a “One Church Plan” approach to the issue of slavery. Southern annual conferences condoned (and some even defended) slavery, while many northern annual conferences became increasingly opposed to slavery. The church stayed “united” in this way until the crisis of 1844, when the northern delegates outnumbered the southern delegates and voted to suspend a slave-holding bishop. That action precipitated a month-long General Conference that culminated in the North-South split in the Methodist Episcopal Church that foreshadowed the Civil War 17 years later. 

In the example of slavery, the moral imperative to end the practice overwhelmed the desire to preserve church unity, and the church split. A “One Church Plan” approach proved untenable in the long term (it lasted less than 50 years). 

When the Methodist Church removed the prohibition against ordaining women in 1956, it did not make provision for some annual conferences to ordain women while allowing other annual conferences not to ordain women. Instead, it removed the prohibition and expected that every annual conference would ordain women. There were central conferences outside the United States that would have preferred not to ordain women because of their cultural situation. The Judicial Council ruled that they did not have that option (see Decision 155). 

When the church changed its understanding and teaching regarding women’s ordination, it mandated that all annual conferences follow the new interpretation. It did not adopt a “One Church Plan” approach to women’s ordination. 

It is more difficult to pinpoint the timeline of how divorced clergy became accepted in The United Methodist Church. The bishop who ordained me, Bishop Marjorie Matthews, was the first divorced person elected bishop (she was also the first woman elected bishop). Nevertheless, divorce per se is not a barrier to ordained ministry today, whereas a generation ago, there was such a thing as a “divorce review committee” whose purpose was to determine if a clergy person’s divorce was biblically justified. (See Judicial Council Decision 497). 

Here again, the idea of having two different standards regarding divorced clergy in the church at the same time has not proven to be tenable. A 2016 attempt by the Liberia Annual Conference to bar divorced clergy from being nominated for election as bishop of Liberia was not approved by the West Africa Central Conference. 

All these historical examples demonstrate a change in the church’s position on an issue. However, none of them shows the viability of a “One Church Plan” or “local option” approach to the issue. Rather, the church came to a united understanding of a new position that was then enforced throughout the church. 

But that may be what supporters of the One Church Plan intend. Many of them have said that they favor complete affirmation of same-sex relationships but regard the OCP as an interim step on the way to such full affirmation. History would tend to support the idea that the move toward a One Church Plan would ultimately result in a change of teaching and practice for the whole church, without exception.


Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. He is a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.


Comments

  1. Excellent analysis! Its conclusions have already been proven in The Episcopal Church, PCUSA, and ELCA – Q.E.D.

  2. Pastor Lambrecht — you are most kind and generous with your response to this “mainstream newsletter”. . May God bless and keep you.

    I have no doubt that this ‘one’ church plan is the first step in a long range plan. A key plank in the ultimate plan for the entire UMC would be for a pastor who refuses to perform a “same-sex wedding” to be automatically brought up on charges, and for a bishop who denies the appointment of a “practicing homosexual pastor” to a local church to automatically brought up on charges. This Mainstream UMC “newsletter” is a canard. This ‘one’ one church plan is the most deceptive initiative ever brought before the Methodist Church.

    Note. These ‘one’ church plan folks seem to avoid, be afraid of, or even want to acknowledge the place of SIN and SALVATION in our denomination.

    But, what this newsletter does expose is the REAL ISSUE in our church —BIBLICAL AUTHORITY. This newsletter says that this debate about homosexuality is NOT about Biblical authority but about Biblical interpretation. That would mean that all the various Scriptures that name the practice of homosexuality as a sin are subject to interpretation and, consequently, opens the door to ultimately viewing all sins named in the Bible as open to interpretation, beginning with all the other sexually immoral sins.

    It is interesting that this newsletter did not address the definition of marriage given by Jesus as recorded in Matthew and Mark. Instead, it focused on what Jesus said about divorce with relation of how the church has handled divorce by implying that the old adage of two wrongs can make a right. As for slavery, it seems that Wesley was adamantly opposed to it. Paul name as sins slave traders and men having sex with men in the same sentence — not exactly an endorsement of slavery or the practice of homosexuality.

    But, with relation to Biblical authority vs Biblical interpretation, the newsletter concluded with a Unitarian Universalist sounding statement, “the one church plan honors the beliefs of every bishop, every annual conference, every local church, every pastor, every lay person. The one church plan CREATES A CHURCH for everyone” So, they envision a new, transformed United Methodist Church that walks away from the Bible as its authority, from John Wesley its founder, from its historic doctrines and beliefs, and in the direction of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

  3. It would be intellectually more honest to approve the Simple Plan than the OCP. Either homosexuality is a sin and should be banned or it is not and should be allowed. It is an either/or question and should be treated that way. The OCP’s counterparts in other denominations has been a stepping stone to full inclusion in everyone where something similar passed and it will be no difference in ours. We should approach the issue with clarity and honesty. Of course passage of the simple plan ( or the OCP) will be the end of my being a Methodist minister. Still I prefer an open and honest debate to the politics being played now.

    • C A BUSTER says:

      Yep. Methodist Bishops and the General Conference need to state if homosexuality is a sin or not, and act accordingly. No more fiddling around to besmirch our denomination upon a decide-as-you-please “biblical and theological foundation”.

  4. The real argument for the ‘one’ church plan — first step:

    https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/01/11/episcopal-restricts-bishop-gay-marriage/

  5. Bill McClure says:

    One world order?

    Sound familiar?

    I believe the Bible. I know a broken promise is a broken promise. Upon marriage, we vow to God that we shall not leave that relationship until death. Homosexuality? Read the Bible. New Testament, Old Testament. Do we pick and choose what fits our lifestyle?
    Certainly, God knows, I’m a sinner. Who isn’t other than our Living God? Sodomy and Repentance have root meanings.

    I am watching the church self destruct, and it breaks my heart.

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