This is the fourth part in a seven part blog series reflecting on the document, A Way Forward for a United Methodist Church.
The entire argument found in the proposal, A Way Forward, is centered on the hope for a “Third Way.” The proposal sees a church at war, torn between two angry groups; one conservative and traditional, one progressive and innovative. The conservative group is determined that the UMC retain their current prohibition against homosexual behavior or they will leave the church. The “progressives” will not stop fighting at General Conferences until the whole church comes around to the total acceptance of homosexual behavior. The proposal A Way Forward claims to be a compromise or “third way” which will bring the two groups together by creating legislation to accommodate both sides and, hopefully, usher in a period of peace and unity. The proposal must be tempting for many Methodists who are tired of re-fighting this fight every four years and who are desperate for any solution which might bring peace and stability.
However, this proposal will not achieve what they hope, but for reasons which may not be so obvious on the surface. In the early days of this debate there was a strong push to emphasize that Scripture condemns homosexual behavior, not homosexuals as persons. It was pointed out that the pertinent Scriptural texts focus on behavior and not, for example, homosexual orientation. This is what eventually led to the current UMC position which affirms the person, but condemns the behavior.
We all realize, however, that quite a bit has changed in the last few decades related to this point. Now, it is widely argued that the reason the church should not and, indeed, cannot make the distinction between “behavior” and “person” is because a growing number of homosexual persons believe God created them to be homosexual. In other words, homosexual identity is, in their view, part of who they are, not merely a behavior they engage in. What this means is the homosexual identity is now part of one’s ontology (identified with our being), not a behavioral choice. Homosexuality is no longer about the freedom to choose, but, more fundamentally, about one’s very being – that is, a civil rights issue. Today, homosexual identity – at least in the wider culture – is viewed as no different from racial identity. To deny homosexual rights, they argue, is an act of discrimination which must be stopped.
The problem with A Way Forward is that it doesn’t seem to recognize the significance of this shift. Once homosexual identity is accepted as integral to one’s basic ontology by progressives, then any compromise between the two groups is immoral. The reason is that once this is accepted as a basic civil right, then it is a matter of justice and equality for all. Thus, they cannot rest until justice is enjoyed by everyone. This is why it is a false hope that this proposal, if accepted, would result in no more fighting every four years at General Conference. A compromise would only work, hypothetically, if we had already agreed that this was a disagreement about behavior. However, I’m not so sure that progressives would agree that this is just about behavior. Isn’t the debate in a very different place today?
It is important for the church to teach, in contrast to the culture, that the New Testament sees practicing homosexuals as persons of sacred worth who are involved in a behavior which is sinful, and that homosexual identity should not be regarded as an ontological identity. Indeed, homosexual behavior should be treated conceptually the same as other sins on Paul’s sin lists. A Way Forward will, therefore, not result in any less fighting at General Conference until this point is clarified. The more likely scenario is that this proposed legislation would unleash thousands of new battles in local churches across the country. One of the great virtues of our Methodist system is that we have removed many of our struggles from the life of the church and allowed District Superintendents, Jurisdictional and General Conferences, and the Judicial Council to adjudicate our grievances and to help mediate “holy conferencing.” This legislation will change that. If adopted, expect more conflict and division, not less. The basic reason is that there is no “middle ground” between a group which is convinced that this is a question of behavior and a group which sees it as a civil right based on ontology.
In the days before the Civil War, five bills were passed by congress which became known as the Great Compromise of 1850. The gist of the Compromise was to allow slavery in some states, allow flexibility in some areas, and prohibit the spread of slavery in new territories acquired by the United States. It was hailed as the solution which would keep the country from Civil War. However, the same error which was made in the Great Compromise is now being repeated in A Way Forward. The reason is because slavery was, fundamentally, not about the rights of States, or the economy of the South; it was about the ontology of persons whose racial identity was part and parcel of their creation by God. The Great Compromise did not prevent the Civil War, and this legislation (if based on an ontological assumption regarding the nature of homosexuality) will likely spur on the separation of the church, not prevent it.
The document A Way Forward must weigh in specifically on whether they believe this “third way” is about mediating different views about homosexual behavior, or if they accept the argument that homosexual identity is part of one’s creational ontology. If, on the one hand, it is agreed on both sides that this is a discussion about homosexual behavior (as the current Discipline assumes) then this changes the nature of the discussion. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the progressives believe that homosexuality is about ontological identity, then this severely restricts the possibility that this document will achieve any cessation of conflict at future General Conferences.