Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part III): Experience, Scripture, and the Quadrilateral

Monday, November 27th, 2017

This is the third installment in a series of reflections on the current crisis within the United Methodist church over human sexuality. According to the November 9th press release from the Council of Bishops, the “local option” is one of the three options currently under consideration to help resolve this debate. The local option would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership, and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. The purpose of this blog series is to explore the implications of this particular proposal.

From the outset, I have argued that unless there is broad agreement on certain foundational principles, then the final decision will not result in a flourishing church. In my opinion, our leaders have not been attentive to these foundational concerns. First, as noted in the earlier articles, there has been an insufficient attention to a proper theological and biblical understanding of the basis of church unity. Instead, unity is being interpreted as the institutional survival of the United Methodist denomination. But, we must first secure our Christian identity before we are in a position to properly rescue the denomination. It would be very helpful if the letter had simply repeated what is already in our Discipline regarding the definition of unity: “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task).

The second foundational concern we are exploring is the authority of scripture. The November 9th release from the Council of Bishops notes several “values” which are guiding the process. The three primary values noted were unity, space, and contextuality—all for the sake of mission. It is unclear whether this statement was just being descriptive, noting publicly that these were the values which were at work in the three proposals developed by the Commission, or if the Council was being prescriptive in stating that these are the values which should guide the process. The statement did indicate that the Bishops are not, at this point, demonstrating a preference for any of the three options. In either case, there is the notable omission that there is no reference to the value of the final decision being biblical, or that, in the end, Scripture has any role in deciding this crucial issue. Like I would expect from many of you, I found it scandalous the Council of Bishops would put out a pastoral letter about such an explosively contentious issue—which needs to be resolved and which threatens to tear our church asunder—and never mention the Bible or Scripture in the entire document.

Throughout my thirty-three years of ministry as an ordained United Methodist pastor there has been a notable and consistent lack of interest in scriptural references to matters of human sexuality, not to mention the deep theological structures which underpin marriage in the Bible (e.g. creation account, theology of the body, body of Christ imagery, marriage supper of the lamb, etc.). To be fair, theologians and biblical scholars have been invited to deliver papers to the Commission. However, the influence this has had on conversations, proposals, and blog posts, etc. in the wider church has been tepid. There are, of course, passing references to how certain broad biblical themes such as justice or mercy, but not the deep, thoughtful theological and biblical engagement with specific texts which is required. This will be addressed more in the fourth installment of this series.

The paucity of biblical engagement is due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about the so-called “quadrilateral” which has been popularized in our denomination. The quadrilateral, rightly understood, is about the primacy of Scripture and the secondary role which tradition, reason, and experience should play in our theological and ethical deliberations. We are, after all, the “people of one Book.” What the quadrilateral is not, however, is a statement of four equal values. Yet, in our deliberations one sometimes gets the impression that the quadrilateral has been flipped on its head. In our conversations, pastoral considerations and anecdotal stories tend to rule the day. In other words, we have turned the quadrilateral on its head and we often end up using experience as the definitive lens through which we understand scripture and tradition.

It would be very helpful if our commitment to the primacy of Scripture as the final authority in the life of the church were to be made clear. Our Discipline says, “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (p. 83). There is nothing wrong with highlighting values like contextuality and space, but neither should be understood as primary values. The church deserves to see the biblical and theological evidence which supports whatever proposal is set forth. This, in turn, will enable us to have the proper discussion we need to have between now and 2019. For, indeed, whatever decision is reached by the Commission on the Way Forward, or any other proposals which warrant consideration, must be accompanied by a well-argued case which makes sense theologically, biblically, and historically—if it has any chance of being adopted by the General Conference in 2019.