One of the phrases which will become more and more prominent in the next few years within United Methodist churches will be the phrase “local option.” This is a proposed solution to the current crisis in the United Methodist church over same sex marriage. While there are several local option proposals, they all share the conviction that the General Church should not render a final decision on this issue, but leave it to the conscience of local churches and annual conferences to decide. Local churches would make their own decisions regarding membership and pastoral appointments of LGBTQ persons, and annual conferences would make decisions regarding ordination.
This is the first of a series of articles dedicated to exploring the ramifications of the so-called “local option” solution. Since there are several nuances to the various local option proposals, I have chosen of focus on the Uniting Methodists document because it is the most well-known proposal within this category. The Uniting Methodists document is made of up six articles, the last three of which make the following points:
+ The biblical position regarding homosexual behavior is unclear.
+ Clergy should neither be required, nor prohibited, from performing same sex weddings. It is a “local option” privilege which allows each clergy to make this decision.
+ The United Methodist denomination should allow all annual conferences to decide whether they will ordain lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgendered and queer Christians (LGBTQ). This would be a “local option” for all annual conferences.
Future blog posts will deal with each of these three positions. However, before the specific details of the proposal are examined, it is important to deal with several foundational issues which have given rise to this proposal in the first place. The framers of this document are clear that they are motivated primarily by a desire to maintain church unity. The local option solution is widely regarded as the only way to keep the church from hopelessly splitting into three or more factions. Therefore, this proposal is widely regarded as the greatest hope for church unity.
Our Episcopal leaders often remind us that they have sworn in their consecration vows to “uphold the unity of the church.” However, there seems to be confusion about what is meant by “church unity.” When some hear the phrase, “uphold the unity of the church” they think this is referring to the organizational and bureaucratic churchly machinery known denominationally as the United Methodist church. This is not true. When Jesus said “I will build my church” He was referring to the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ throughout space and time of which He is the Lord and head. Our unity is rooted in that sacred unity. Our unity is in Jesus Christ. Our unity is in the gospel. Our unity is with the people of God around the world and back through time. If keeping the unity of the church was an organizational, denominational mandate, then there would never have been a Reformation. The Reformation was not fundamentally a schismatic movement—but the church’s greatest act of catholicity. It was a remembering of the ancient faith and a return to the apostolic message.
I am not advocating for the separation of the United Methodist church into multiple pieces. 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. The Lord does not need us 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.
Ultimately, I would carry a profound sadness if, in a few years, we are forced to accept the dissolution of the denomination through which I was brought to faith. My point is that there are more important matters at stake. We must first understand what the basis of church unity is. We should be far more concerned about our adherence to the historic gospel than our adherence to our bureaucratic structures. In eternity, no one will care five cents whether you were a United Methodist or not. Denominations come and go. The gospel is forever. If it takes new wineskins to capture the great and vibrant wesleyan message, then bring on the new wineskins.
What we cannot accept are pragmatic notions about church unity which are disconnected from the real source of our spiritual unity. After all, if we are going to quote consecration vows, let’s quote all of them; namely that our leaders have also sworn to “guard the faith.” This is the point. The vow to work for “unity” and the vow to “guard the faith” are two sides of the same coin. One makes the other possible. Whether a movement called “United Methodist” survives is not nearly as important as if the gospel itself prevails among the people called Methodist.