The Council of Bishops is currently meeting to decide what proposal(s) to submit to the 2019 General Conference to resolve the conflict in our church. Will they understand and accommodate the interests and convictions of incompatibilists in their proposal(s)? The following is excerpted and adapted from my chapter in the book, Holy Contradictions, edited by Brian K. Milford and recently released by Abingdon.
For more than 2,000 years there has been a unified global vision for Christian marriage and human sexuality. In every culture, on every continent, and in every language around the globe, Christianity’s teaching has always promoted the exclusive belief that one man and one woman in lifelong marriage optimizes human flourishing within society. It is a foundational belief shared in common within Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. United Methodism has always taught that the anchor for intimate relationships for clergy and laity should be fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness.
After two millennia, a contrary teaching has been introduced within segments of North American and European mainline denominations. It proposes that contemporary same-sex marriage and intimacy is not the same thing as that prohibited by certain biblical passages. It proposes that mutual, loving same-sex relationships can and should exist today – and should be blessed by the worldwide United Methodist Church. From the viewpoint of progressives, contemporary scientific understandings about the origins of sexual orientation make it likely that same-sex attraction is an inborn characteristic. Therefore, they believe same-sex relations can be holy and good if engaged in within the parameters of faithfulness and mutuality. Accordingly, they believe, the church ought to condone same-sex relationships, perform same-sex marriages, and ordain non-celibate lesbians and gays into ministry.
These two positions tend to be mutually exclusive. The differences between them are stark and irreconcilable. Underlying the two positions are often different views about biblical authority and inspiration, different definitions of holiness, and different understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Thus, it is nearly impossible for many people holding the two different positions to share a common mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. For one, transforming the world means working for the full equality, acceptance, and affirmation of LGBTQ persons and their relationships and their full inclusion in the church. For the other, transforming the world means promoting traditional views of marriage and sexuality, as well as offering support and transformative healing to LGBTQ persons. The two are working at cross purposes and in opposition to each other!
The document “In Search of Unity,” published in 1998 as the report of a theological dialog about the tensions in The United Methodist Church, presents an analysis first articulated by now retired Bishop Judith Craig. The church is not only divided between those who have a traditional understanding of marriage as between one man and one woman, versus those who have a more progressive understanding of marriage as able to be between any two persons, regardless ofgender. The church is also divided between those who can live with a variety of opinions and practices of ministry around LGBTQ persons (“compatibilists”), versus those who believe that the church’s position is of essential importance and cannot live in a church where the other viewpoint is promoted and practiced (“incompatibilists”).
Progressive incompatibilists “believe that the exclusion of anyone from the full life of the church is completely unacceptable because it is contradictory to the gospel. For them, homosexual persons, practicing or not, are persons of sacred worth living according to the gifts and evidences of God’s grace given to them. To deny such persons a full place in the church is a violation of the holiness and catholicity of the church. For these incompatibilists, to continue to participate in such an exclusive and oppressive organization only serves to legitimate the incomplete worshipping community and perpetuate the sin of exclusion. Commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ requires active resistance and the commitment to stand prophetically against the injustices perpetuated by the institution” (In Search of Unity, p. 8).
It is the progressive incompatibilist approach that has caused clergy (including one retired bishop) to perform same-sex weddings, contrary to our Book of Discipline, sometimes as a public protest event. This approach has prompted seven annual conferences and two jurisdictions to pass resolutions of non-conformity with the Book of Discipline. It has resulted in annual conference boards of ordained ministry recommending for ordination persons whom they knew to be practicing homosexuals. And it has led to the Western Jurisdiction electing and consecrating the Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married lesbian, as a United Methodist bishop.
The actions of progressive incompatibilists are an expression of their quest for justice and the rights of LGBTQ persons within the context of our church. They see this quest as informed and commanded by Scripture and the teachings of Jesus. They have come to the place where they cannot live in a denomination that does not marry or ordain gays and lesbians. So they have taken matters into their own hands and created a de facto reality in many annual conferences that is contrary to the position of The United Methodist Church.
Traditional incompatibilists, on the other hand, believe “for the United Methodist Church to accept homosexual practices either officially in its courts or unofficially by condoning widespread practice would be to forfeit its designation as ‘a body of faithful people where the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.’ For these incompatibilists their stance is a matter of conscience as formed by Scripture and the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Furthermore, most incompatibilists on the more conservative side believe that the classical teaching of the Christian tradition is a much-needed word of healing. It is a precious medicine that the Holy Spirit can use to transform and redeem all our sexual sins and wounds. Hence they cannot but proclaim and implement the full liberty from all sin promised in the gospel and warranted by the Lordship of Jesus Christ” (In Search of Unity, p. 8).
Traditional incompatibilists believe the church has unofficially changed its position by its inability to hold accountable those who have violated the teachings and requirements of the church. This has prompted a number of large congregations to leave The United Methodist Church and is causing thousands of individuals to leave their local congregations or withhold financial support for the church.
Currently, many if not most progressive incompatibilists seem willing to live in a denomination that allows, but does not require, same-sex weddings and ordination of practicing LGBTQ persons. The shared support of progressive incompatibilists and compatibilists of every stripe has given rise to compatibilist approaches, from the Hamilton-Slaughter “agree to disagree” to the “local option” to the “Third Way” from the Connectional Table and now to the “One Church Model” from the Commission on a Way Forward. All have in common the creation of a compatibilist denomination that allows different forms of beliefs and ministries to function within one organization.
This compatibilist approach, however, ignores the interests of traditional incompatibilists, who cannot live in a denomination where what they see as disobedience to the clear teaching of Scripture is allowed. U.S. traditional incompatibilists and those from the central conferences outside the U.S.-notably in Africa and much of the Philippines and Eastern Europe-constitute a majority of the church as reflected in the delegation at General Conference.
Any attempt to engage in mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the current crisis must reckon with the conflicting interests reflected in the incompatibilist groups. Progressive incompatibilists need to have a Wesleyan denomination that allows same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. They will keep fighting until they get one. The only way to stop the conflict is to give them their own denomination, whether it is by evicting them from the current United Methodist Church or by some form of negotiated separation.
Traditional incompatibilists need to have a Wesleyan denomination that disallows same-sex marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals in order to remain true to their understanding of Scripture. Traditionalists hold the majority at General Conference. So the only way for progressives to change the position of the church is to evict traditionalists or have some form of negotiated separation.
Can traditional and progressive incompatibilists live together in the same church body? Ultimately, I believe the answer is “no.” As the bishops meet this week and issue their proposal, will they take seriously the needs and convictions of incompatibilists?
Tom Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. This article is taken from Holy Contradictions (Abingdon Press, 2018), a collection of essays representing diverse responses on how United Methodists can live in the Wesleyan tradition in times of disagreement. The seventeen contributors include among others Tracy S. Malone, Scott T. Kisker, Rob Fuquay, Audrey Warren, and Philip Wogaman. It can be purchased HERE