Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VII): Can We Receive Some Better Questions, Please?

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

This is the final article in this series on the Uniting Methodists document and the “local option” solution. The proposed solution to our conversations about same-sex marriage and ordination is to allow local churches to decide whether they will or will not perform same-sex marriages and allow the annual conferences to decide whether or not they will ordain homosexual, bi-sexual, gender non-conforming, and transgendered persons. The previous six articles examined this solution from various angles to discern whether this is a wise direction for our beloved denomination.

I know that there is a general weariness about this issue and a sense that because we have been discussing it for 45 years we should surely be able to decide one way or the other by now, and move on. However, the reason we cannot, and will not, be able to ‘move on” is that, despite 45 years of debate, we have never actually had a proper discussion about it. The driving questions raised in these articles about the nature of church unity, the authority of scripture, the exegesis of key texts, the Christian view of the body, God’s design for marriage, and so forth have all been silenced under much weaker questions.

We have all been subjected to endless vague questions which have been wearily imposed upon our beloved church: “Is it not time for the United Methodist Church to become more inclusive?” “Haven’t we been called to love all people?” “Just as we have evolved in our views regarding slavery and the role of women, is it not time to evolve our views regarding homosexuality?” We must insist that better questions be asked. There is too much at stake. Our church deserves our best thinking.

Sometimes questions wrapped up in the word “inclusive” have tacitly carried the assumption that the church has some moral obligation to embrace every conceivable view which is put forward, even if it is a new doctrine invented last Tuesday. Sometimes the word love is ripped from its biblical rootedness in God’s covenantal holiness, turned into a modern emotional disposition, and then used as a lever to convince us that we cannot “love our neighbor” unless we also embrace the sins of our neighbor. Sometimes we are asked to believe that the church, in disobedience to scripture (e.g. attitudes towards women, minorities, or slavery), is equivalent with the actual teachings of scripture. Sometimes we hear the phrase, “my experience teaches me”—as if experience is the final arbiter of any dispute, carrying more weight than Scripture itself. Sometimes we are given endless pragmatic arguments about how our empty pews will be filled with young people if we just “get on the right side of history.” Sometimes we are told that because same-sex marriage is not explicitly condemned in the Apostles’ Creed, this is all much ado about nothing, neglecting the point that no sins are listed or even mentioned in the Creed. Sometimes we hear statements which confuse the church’s glorious diversity with the accommodation of endless human preferences. Sometimes we are told that passages which have been abundantly clear to the church for 2,000 years are suddenly unclear and no one has a clue what they mean. We are not given an alternative solution to consider, and weigh on its merits. We are just lulled into the sea of what Michael Ovey ingeniously calls “imperious ignorance.” I could go on, but these are a few examples of the intellectually fragile position into which we have allowed ourselves to be pushed.

What we desperately need is a proper, nuanced conversation about church history, biblical texts, theology, and pastoral care. We must, frankly speaking, grow up and act like we are part of the church of Jesus Christ which stretches back through time and around the globe. We are not a human organization like the Kiwanis Club. We are the divinely commissioned church of Jesus Christ. We must have a rebirth of both catholicity and apostolicity. We must pray for a renewed encounter with our own vibrant tradition which continues to call us to be a people of “one Book” and to “spread scriptural holiness.”

Brothers and sisters, even if it takes more time, let’s insist on a better framework of questions. These weak questions have led to weak thinking, more divisiveness, and, at times, the shaming of those who adhere to the official position in the Book of Discipline. Weak questions have led to the incapacity to speak prophetically to a culture which is in deep malaise. We have become like the doctor who thinks that he or she cannot properly treat any of their patients until they catch every disease that they have.

Mirslov Volf, the well-known theologian, statesman, and author writes in his landmark book, Exclusion and Embrace, “Vilify all boundaries, pronounce every discrete identity oppressive, put the tag ‘exclusion’ on every stable difference—and you will have aimless drifting instead of clear-sighted agency, haphazard activity instead of moral engagement and accountability, and, in the long run, a torpor of death instead of a dance of freedom” (p. 64f). May the Risen and Exalted Christ wake us up from this protracted denominational slumber, for our only hope is in His divine action. This is not the time for either clinched fists or wringing hands. Rather, it is the time for open arms lifted up to the Lord of all who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He can raise us up to new heights of proclamation, witness, and hope.


  • Keith says:

    Thanks again Rev Tennent. I will encourage my UM contacts to read your seven blog posts, I will pray that we might renew ourselves in the knowledge of Scripture, and I will do my best to encourage my UM friends to have the courage to stand and speak what they believe in spite of the arrows dipped in the false accusation “intolerant”. I trust The Father, The Son and the Spirit to make a way for me.

  • Dr Tennent, thank you for a thoughtful seven-part response to the Uniting Methodist movement. I am a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary (MDiv, December 2007). I currently serve as an ordained elder in the UMC in Houston, Texas. I have been a part of the Uniting Methodist conversations. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with you further one-on-one on the Biblical beliefs which have inspired me to stand in the center. I recognize your schedule is quite busy. Perhaps with the approaching J-term, there may be opportunity.
    Shalom, Melissa

  • Rev. Dr. Tennent
    Thank you for this blog series. Our Church needs to be involved in finding and answering these “better questions.”

  • D. Payne says:

    Thanks for this series of articles. I agree with most all of your discussion. I think there is a basis for the argument of experience. Although John Wesley spoke of being of One Book, and went to that book for defense of his teachings, he also, as you know, relied a great deal on experience, if that experience agreed with Scripture. He also relied upon the historical doctrines of the church and he and his friends at Oxford sought to follow the practices of the early church. The Church (not only U.M.s , but all), need to begin to emphasize experience, an experience of encountering the Risen Christ in an experience of salvation that changes their life and cleanses their heart. It is then a relationship with Him and the experience and lifestyle is in agreement with Scripture. It is time for the Church to stop allowing secular culture to define Christian behavior.
    There is no greater experience on earth than a saving encounter with the Risen Lord. Merry Christmas to all.

  • Kwells says:

    A very thoughtful editorial, full of much conviction. My only reservation is to quibble over a slight misunderstanding of the status of denominations in the Body of Christ. The very fact that their is such a debate is proof that the UMC (or any denomination) simply IS a human institution like the Kiwanis club. The sooner one realizes this, the clearer the issues become, as the easier it becomes to cut ties when, if, and where they need to be cut. All human-engendered organizations that have attached themselves th Christ’s Body are either moving toward Him or away from Him at any particular moment. In the latter, some ae called to stay and warn, for a time. For this reason I do appreciate your clarion call to come back to Christ, but certainly it is not a call to come back to John Wesley. I’m sure he is blissfully unaware of these goings on.
    I don’t mean to offend, but Colossians 2:8 was my memory verse yesterday, and it has to come out somewhere.

  • Gary Bebop says:

    Thanks for this inspired and brilliantly incised gem of a series. You have a refreshing way of getting to the point. The time for obfuscation and dithering has passed. You model for us the conversation that is urgent.

  • Betsy says:

    I appreciate this series of articles that addresses the fact that basically the church is having the “wrong discussion” and that the sexuality question is no longer limited to same gender relationships. However, since you were critiquing the Uniting Methodists statements, you missed an aspect that surfaced after GC2016: Progressive Conferences that declared non-conformity re sexuality also declared non-conformity re the stance of General Conference on the Religious Coalition of Reproductive Choice as well as Israel. The divide is no longer just about sexuality.