A Way Forward? My Response. Part 2: What is the Basis for Church Unity?

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014

What is the Basis for Church Unity?

This is part 2 of a seven part blog series on a recent proposal put forth by leading United Methodists entitled, A Way Forward. The underlying assumption of the proposal, A Way Forward, seems to imply that the cause of the church’s dis-unity is a fight over homosexuality and, therefore the key to church unity is to “agree to disagree” about this issue. But, have the endorsers of this document misdiagnosed the nature of the church’s unity?

The second sentence in the document says “The ongoing debate over homosexuality continues to divide us.” Later, the document declares that most of our churches “stand to lose members if the UMC divides into two churches over homosexuality.” The point is driven home repeatedly by using the word ‘homosexual’ or ‘homosexuality’ 20 times in a short three and a half page statement. However, it is important to remember that agreement about homosexuality is neither the basis of, nor the source of, church unity. This issue is, at best, the fruit of a deep problem, but it is not the root and should not be regarded as such.

The church is unified by the glorious gospel under the headship of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ. No legislation can produce the power of that unity. Our problems run far deeper than the current debate over homosexuality. In fact, if the “crisis” over homosexuality were to disappear tomorrow, it would not fundamentally change the nature or gravity of the crisis which is engulfing the UMC. One of the key statements in the document which I heartily agree with is the statement that a break away Methodist denomination which is formed solely around opposition to homosexual behavior would be a disaster. On this point, Hamilton and I agree. However, the reverse is also true. A UMC which is conceptualized as unified because we come to an agreement on how to handle this particular issue is a faulty notion of unity.

I would suggest that while the document tries to capture some larger themes of the church and a few Wesleyan distinctives, the thrust of the document, and certainly the whole of the actual proposal which is put on the table is focused on one issue: homosexuality.

Why are we being asked to believe in a quick legislative “single issue” fix for a problem and crisis which has taken fifty years to come to full fruit? The reason is because we have lost sight of some of the larger issues which are upon us and the real basis for our unity as the church of Jesus Christ. Our difficulties are far graver, much deeper, and more difficult to address than the single issue which is raised in The Way Forward. I will briefly mention just three examples of the “deeper issues” we face.

First, we have experienced a slow decline in our confidence in the authority of Scripture. This has been well documented across most mainline denominations, and the UMC has not been immune to this. We simply do not have the respect and holy reverence for God’s Word that we once did. We are a long, long way from Wesley’s famous cry that he was homo unius libri – a man of One Book! How does this apply to sexuality? Our increasing orientation towards contemporary cultural attitudes, rather than a biblically formed world-view, has resulted in a gradual acceptance of the culture’s definition of marriage: a social arrangement for personal fulfillment. The whole biblical, theological vision for marriage has been lost. We are a long way from a solid Christian understanding of marriage as reflecting the image of God, mirroring the Trinity, characterized by reproducibility, self-donation and mutual submission, and providing a window into the mystery of Christ and the church. All of this was lost long before homosexuality emerged as an issue in the church. The focus on one issue also obscures the larger scriptural assessment of sexual brokenness which includes adultery, fornication, the avalanche of pornography, human trafficking, the commodification of women and sexuality in sales and marketing, and so forth. Again, these deep issues were being laid at the doorstep of a largely silent church long before homosexuality became an issue. So, homosexuality is merely one presenting problem, not the root problem.

Second, the loss of biblical authority has also had a big influence on theological education and the kinds of courses which men and women take as they prepare for the ministry. A thorough “core” grounding in biblical studies, theology, and church history has been supplanted by endless specialized courses which have inadvertently created a rise in “specialized” knowledge, but a decline in basic grounding in the deep truths of Christianity which unite all Christians of all ages. We must recover a distinctly Christian consciousness. One of the clear signs of our times is how muddled the gospel message has become in our churches.

Third, there is a narrow denominational parochialism which seems to blind leaders to the grand faith of the church of Jesus Christ through the ages and around the world. The greatest hope of The Way Forward seems to be the institutional survival of a particular denomination called United Methodist. The document longs for a kind of structural unity at all, without a proper consideration of the real basis for unity which is the gospel itself. I neither fear our demise, nor hope for our dissolution. This is because the New Testament teaches that the true church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. It is indestructible because He has promised to build it – and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. He doesn’t need me or anyone else to “save the church” from extinction. Our death as a church – as with any church – comes only by separating ourselves from His Headship. If we remember the gospel faithfully then nothing can destroy us. If we forget the gospel, then nothing we do can save us, or should.

Tomorrow’s blog will focus on the post-modern perspective of the proposal.


  • Mark says:

    More excellent observations here.

    I would note that the thrust of what I call the “sexuality-as-identity” movement has been long in the making and is greatly enhanced/emboldened by those currently in power in politics/academia/media. These developments bring to mind the sexually-centered pagan rituals mentioned in the OT and elsewhere. There is nothing new under the sun.

    The hypocrisy of the modern left is astounding. They consistently marginalize those who take the Bible seriously, placing them all in the category of “fundys,” while sanctimoniously raling against other kinds of stereotypes. This reveals, contrary to their claims, a desire to marginalize opposing views rather than engage them.

    They have also been telling us since the 60’s that marriage is an outdated social institution–now, ironically, they are finding new importance for it (ergo, it seems to be a means to some other end). If not for their unwarranted power no one would pay them any attention. It’s the unwarranted power that must get our attention, kind of like the guy who has had too much to drink whom you ignore until you find he’s driving your bus.

    • We in the south are intimately familiar with kudzu… and evil. It begins with two people who love each other and simply want the opportunity to draw each other’s pension. Now in Denmark, churches are required by law to allow homosexual marriages. Oh, what a tangled web we weave…

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  • Dan Johnson says:

    Tim, thanks for doing this blog. As one who helped craft the “A Way Forward” proposal, I want to say to your three points:
    1. I have a high view of the authority of Scripture, and I am confident that many of us who helped draft this have a similar high view. Here’s a question for you, as I know that you have a high view of Scripture and, presumably you support the ordination of women in ministry, even though the witness of Scripture could be seen as mixed on this. Does this suggest that there can be differing views among people who hold similarly high views of the authority of Scripture?
    2. I an many who drafted the proposal have a classical, solid theological education; mine was at Asbury, with a Ph.D. at Princeton.
    3. Rather than a narrow parochialism to save the UM church, this proposal is, in part, to preserve the worldwide ministry of the UMC, in relieving suffering, sharing the Gospel, proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ, and sharing the love of God for all.

    All this to highlight the point of the proposal that people like you and I can share high views of Scriptural authority, the absolute importance of a classical theological education and a robust view of worldwide evangelism and still disagree on some points that are less essential. I’ll see you tomorrow for breakfast; looking forward to our visit. Dan

    • Mark says:

      A high view of Scripture, and an objective interpretation, would agree that the Scriptural teaching on the ordination of women is somewhat mixed. That same approach would necessarily yield the conclusion that homosexual behavior–not necessarily orientation–is condemned.

    • Dan Johnson’s post refers. I am not a Ph.D in Theology necessarily translates to a high view of the Bible and not the least from Princeton. True to the school’s philosophy it seems to affirm that there is no absolute truth and very much consistent with the subject matter in this discussion-everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. Yes, we will continue to disagree but surely, their are standards we can use to assess our opinion and Tennent is doing an excellent job of this. Scripture and the witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer affirm this.

  • Dave Nuckols says:

    I’m having a hard time “suspending disbelief ” for the fiction that our current crisis isn’t about traditional homophobia and/or heterosexism and/or patriarchy. Truly the objection from very many schismatics a on the right is one or more of these things.

    I do accept that many on the right (and especially leaders) seeking schism care more about differences over interpretation and perceived difference over authority than they do about differences over same sex marriage. I do accept that most on right I’ve met at General Conf likewise feel they are loving and doing right by LGBT people given their sincere view of scripture. I believe these are good people with much to contribute to our shared ministry and mission.

    But bottom line if homosexuality (or “homosexual beviour” if you insist on the distinction) were not at issue, then surely schism would not be on the table.

    Let’s build on Dan Johnson’s point comparing this controversy to our denominational evolution on other topics such as women’s ordination. Let’s add other examples such as slavery and interracial marriage. I hope you future posts will address:
    (1) Scope of Biblical support for traditional views,
    (2) Scope of human bias potentially skewing the tradional view,
    (3) How new scientific understanding comes into play.

    Please confront the created range of sexual orientation and gender expression. And intersex too. The gender binary is an oversimplification that has led to persecution. In Christ there is no longer male nor female. And God shows no partiality.

    Let’s move past this argument to building up the church. Lets focus historical orthodox belief without adding ancient or medieval or modern prejudice to it. Let’s focus on triune God revealed to us by Christ and the Holy Spirit and the Holy Bible. And build or understanding of our shared Wesleyan heritage. That is a constructive role for our seminaries and seminary leaders.

    • Terry Powell says:

      “(2) The Biblical texts which condemn homosexual behavior reflect a first century cultural perspective, not the timeless will of God for the church.
      (3) Opinion polls reveal a dramatic shift in attitudes about homosexual behavior.”

      I can only stand in wonder how the Creator of the universe missed these critical points in His revelation to us. Maybe He wasn’t looking far enough into the future when he had men record His eternal word. Or, maybe it’s just incomplete and needs a little revision so it’s relevant for us today? I must confess though that I’m just a fuddy-duddy and not attracted by strange, new ideas.

    • Mark says:

      Mr, Nuckols, the positions you express here reflect the fallacious reasoning that sexual orientation is the primary determinant of our personhood. I think that is a very unbalanced view, but it certainly makes a good political argument since those whose sexual behavior is being questioned can always claim their “personhood” is being denied.

      You also continue the ruse of comparing the Biblical treatment of slavery to homosexual behavior. The book of Philemon can be understood as an argument against slavery, but there is unequivocal Scriptural condemnation of homosexual behavior. So, that is simply a false analogy.

      If the headlong plunge into cultural acceptance of alternative sexual behavior were not on the table–aided and abetted by the current perfect storm of political/judicial/academic/ecclesiastical leadership–then schism would probably not be on the table, at least not at this time. But, over time, the disagreement over authority–i.e., are we to disregard Scripture, historic Christian teachings, natural law, etc. in preference for contemporary cultural trends?–schism would still come up.

      So, I think folks like Maxie Dunnam and Tim Tennent are exactly right: the larger, overriding issue is one of authority.

      We will never have a productive interaction if we cannot deal with facts and reality.

  • Dave Nuckols, the reason schism is being considered is not because of the disagreement over this issue. It is because of the numerous willful violations of the very covenant (Elders Orders, Book of Discipline) that unites us. If intentional, flagrant violation of the covenant is to be tolerated, we have no covenant.

  • Paul Morelli says:

    science (or at least Psychology Today seems ready to tackle the next step in our natural tendencies. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-sociability/201402/monogamousopen-relationships I am not sure I want them deciding what is “right” … although I can understand why the “majority” would…

  • Paul Morelli says:

    Or if we want to set our moral compass by secular science, consider this quote from Isadora Alman, M.F.T., is a Board-certified sex, marriage, and family therapist, lecturer, author, and syndicated advice columnist of “Ask Isadora.” who writes an article on monogomy in our culture for Psychology Today: (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-sociability/201305/monogamy) “If you are not a natural monogamist or your partner is not, if you feel unwilling or unable to make a lifelong commitment that is a standard part of almost all marriage ceremonies, I urge you to open your mind to consideration of other possibilities. Opening one’s mind is rarely a futile exercise.”

    • Mark says:

      Since Freud the psychological professions have been dominated by sexually-obsessed liberals who have little appreciation for traditional morality. Additionally, psychology is very subjective compared to hard science, so any conclusions are typically provisional (not that psychological treatment cannot be helpful, however). And psychology cannot really address morality; it can document what seems to be but not what should be.