A Way Forward? My Response Part 3: Legislation in a Post Modern Church

Thursday, June 12th, 2014

Legislation in a Post-Modern Church

This is the third part of a seven part series in response to Adam Hamilton’s proposal, A Way Forward.

Let us now focus on the actual legislative aspect of the proposal. The proposal seeks to keep the current Discipline language which states that homosexual behavior is “incompatible with Christian practice.” According to the proposal, this language is retained and remains the official position of the United Methodist Church. Then, in a strange legislative vision, it goes on to create a second level of legislation which would allow Methodist churches to legally disobey the Discipline and, with the support of their pastor and a 66% vote, formalize same-sex marriages. Likewise, annual conferences could vote and choose to ordain and appoint gay and lesbian pastors. So, legislatively, the UMC would be put in the unenviable position of having to write legislation whereby, on the one hand, a law was established, only to be followed by another law which would allow people to disobey the earlier law.

We end up with two completely different “orthodoxies” – one which says that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian faith” and one which says it is “compatible with Christian faith.” One church would be teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin; the other church would teach that it is a sacrament. One church would teach that it is a sin for which Christ died; the other church a sign of wholeness.

The fact that the document actually proposes this without blinking just might be an indicator that we have now embraced post-modernity. Indeed, this just might be one of the clearest examples of a truly post-modern document in the contemporary United Methodist Church. We are now being asked to read the Discipline the way post-moderns have been reading the Bible itself. The Discipline would become, in their view, a document with no objective vision of truth, or standard of morality. Instead, it invites us to formally legislate permission for each church to live in their own personal narratives and construct their own edifice of meaning and “private interpretation,” not because we do not agree on the objective truth of the Bible, but because we have abandoned any sure knowledge that such objective truth can even be known. Let’s not forget that there has been precious little haggling over the meaning of actual texts in this struggle. The loss of energy for the real serious exegetical work has demonstrated the new meaninglessness of such an endeavor in a post-modern world where everything is possible and nothing is certain.

Alas, why would we think that the epistemological crisis which has engulfed post-modernity would only influence the way this generation reads the Bible? If the Bible is now read as nothing more than 1st century “perspectives” where nothing can be truly known for certain, and we have no objective revelation from God, then why wouldn’t we expect that this is how the Discipline might be regarded as well? Now, even morality is market driven, commoditized, and, distributed by “supply and demand” through a super majority vote to the church nearest you. What is moral on main street just might not be regarded as moral across town, but, ne’er mind, everyone gets what they demand.

The document is highly pragmatic, even though it is clothed in religious language. Truth as truth (revelation) has been deposed. We are left with seemingly endless shades of personal opinion and personal preferences, all equally legitimate, with no way to adjudicate anything. So the only thing left to do legislatively is to legislate endless accommodations.

The tragedy of this epistemological collapse is that not only can we no longer read the Bible with confidence; we can’t even get guidance from John Wesley or Phoebe Palmer. But, take heart, the church has seen much darker days than this. In times of difficulty God always raises up better hearers of the gospel. Never forget that the gospel of Jesus Christ is still true and the pre-eminence of the light of Christ will guide us to better days.

Tomorrow’s blog will explore whether this “Third Way” can actually work.


  • Mark says:

    Another very insighful analysis.

    It is interesting that, in a culture that supposedly embraces scientific truth, a similar application of objectivity to moral truth is rejected.

    • Mark, as a scientist-pastor, I’ve watched us also reject scientific truth. The climate change debate is now more financial and philosophical than scientific. Even the gun debate is more emotional than factual. In almost no public debate do we hear facts; even our foreign policy is now twittered!

      In seminary we drew a train of truth with an engine of fact, a car of experience/evidence, and a caboose of feelings. Now we have them reversed…

  • Brett says:

    Thank you so much, Dr. Tennent, for addressing this issue. As a current Asbury seminarian living in the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area, it has been discouraging to move forward on the ordination track under the church scenario here. Your response to Adam Hamilton gives me hope to continue with the church.

  • Patricia says:

    Thanks, Dr. Tennent. I am so appreciative that you, along with other strong, godly people and the seminary have been taking a stand as you have. When I came to Asbury, I had hoped to find a place where my passion for remaining true to the Word of God would be tolerated. I have found myself in a place where that passion has instead been embraced, nurtured, and supported. It is a blessing beyond words, and I thank God over and over for bringing me here.

  • Jack Harnish says:

    The Hamilton/Slaughter proposal may not be perfect, but at least it is an attempt to find a positive way forward. Steve Harper’s excellent new book “For the Sake of the Bride” is the best and most helpful thing I have read so far.

  • Dan Owsley says:

    Positive? Seems like Dr. Tennent’s reponse puts an end to any idea of “positive” in the proposal. Proposals can and should be fully rejected.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    I agree with the previous riposte. The Hamilton/Slaughter proposal is invidious at best, luring us to a cauldron of conversation with false optimism that non-negotiables are really “no problem” and easily swept aside.

  • Shaler says:

    The Methodist Church was started on the idea of inclusion. It got it right on interracial marriage, and eventually it will get it right on homosexuality. The youth have already seen through the farce, and those that haven’t shown their opinion by leaving the church will show it by removing all the barriers put up by Dr Tennent and his ilk.

    • Mark says:

      His “ilk?” Really?

      The hope of marriage redefinitionists, like the hope of liberals of the 1960’s (who, ironically, started this revolution by declaring marriage an outdated social institution), is dependent on the re-education (read “brainwashing”) of the historically easy cultural targets: the youth. Why are they easy targets? Because the youth lack the education, perspective, experience and historical knowledge to know why certain things—like marriage—have come to exist as they are.

      Targeting youth in this way is wrong…I am reminded of the millstone of which Christ spoke (Matthew 18:6).

  • Kevin Marsh says:

    The rhetoric post-modernism is not so modern. It reminds me of another conversation held in a garden before time began, “Surely you will not die…”!

  • Rod says:

    A person cannot get around even Christ’s definition of marriage as between a male and a female. Does not this mean that in gay marriages one is the husband and one the wife? This does not square with anything in the Bible.